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Rising number of cohabiting couples still lack legal protection

The number of unmarried couples in the UK has more than doubled in the last 20 years, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics.

Many cohabitants believe that they have the same legal protection as married couples but, unfortunately for them, this is not the case.  They have few automatic legal rights, which can leave them vulnerable if their relationship with their partner breaks down.

Jo Edwards, chair of the family lawyers group, Resolution, said: “The law doesn't give people in this type of relationship any meaningful legal protection if they separate or if one of them dies.

“Even if one partner has given up work to care for children, or has contributed by supporting their partner in their career by running the home, often their contributions will not be recognised in law, especially if the children have already grown up and left home.”

Family lawyers regularly come across distressing cases where a cohabiting partner suffers a clear injustice.

There are numerous pitfalls.  For example, if your home is in your ex-partner’s name then you will have no automatic right to stay there if you are asked to leave.  Nor will you automatically be entitled to a financial share in the house, even if you helped to pay for it over several years.  Your former partner won’t have to pay maintenance for you, even if you gave up your job to look after the children while he or she went out to build a lucrative career.

Resolution published a Manifesto for Family Law earlier this year calling on the government to give cohabiting couples more legal protection, similar to that enjoyed by married couples.

So far, however, the government has shown little enthusiasm for changing the law.  In the absence of any automatic legal protection, many couples draw up living together agreements that state in advance how their assets should be divided if their relationship fails.  A few years ago the government started a campaign urging couples to draw up such agreements to cover things like finances, property and pensions.

Ownership of the family home is one of the most important issues.  If it is in just one person’s name then the other partner could lose out.  You may want to consider owning it as joint tenants or tenants in common which will make a huge difference to your rights.

If you don’t already have a will then you should draw one up as soon as possible.  Otherwise your estate will pass to your relatives rather than your partner.

Unmarried fathers don’t automatically have parental responsibility for their children but they can acquire it with the agreement of the mother or by applying to a court.  It is clearly better to deal with the matter while your relationship is strong rather than wait until after it has broken down.

Some people may feel embarrassed at first to be making such legal arrangements as it seems that they don’t fully trust each other.  However, such concerns soon disappear and most couples end up feeling their relationship is stronger because both partners feel more secure.

Please contact us if you would like more information about living together agreements or any aspect of family law.