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Rising Cohabitation Highlights the Need for Legal Reform to Protect Women, Expert Says

Experts warn cohabiting couples of the hidden risks of living together without agreements in place, after latest trend shows an increase in unmarried cohabiting couples across all age groups.

Calls for cohabitation reform have recently been rehashed by Labour MP Emily Thornberry who says she wants to make ‘significant changes’ in 2024. The reforms have gained momentum over recent years, prompting the UK parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee to advocate for changes that align with the evolving nature of modern relationships. 

Cohabitation, referring to unmarried couples sharing a household, has seen a significant rise in popularity. 1 in 4 unwed couples are now sharing a household, an increase from 20.6% in 2011 to 24.3% in 2021 across all age groups under 85. This trend, attributed to changing perceptions of traditional marriage, brings with it hidden risks, according to legal experts, Clifton Ingram.

Rashi Gandhi-Dawson, Senior Associate at Clifton Ingram, gives an example of what could pan out for cohabiting couples if the correct precautions are not taken. She says, “Take party A (a woman in her late 50s-early 60s) who has been living with her partner, party B, for over thirty years in a property which is in his name. They have two children over the age of 18 who live independently. She gave up a high-flying career to take care of their children and run the household so doesn’t have a steady income of her own. Party B has a high income.

“They now come to separate, so where does she stand? She cannot rely on the same legal provisions as married couples and there is no obligation on party B to support her financially. If she wishes to make a financial claim against him, she can only do so under property law (Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996), but the process is typically long and costly.

Marriage offers legal and financial security, simplifying asset division and estate planning, unlike cohabitation. 

“While married partners share financial responsibilities, cohabiting couples face potential disputes when combining or separating finances. Cohabitants may also encounter ambiguity in parenting rights, requiring active steps for parental responsibility, and lack legal protections enjoyed by married couples, raising concerns about child support.  

“Any reform of the law will take time. In the meantime, without a cohabitation agreement in place, there’s no straightforward fallback, disproportionately affecting women with children after relationship breakdowns. There’s also the option of adding a cohabiting partner into a will.

“The example of party A, a woman in her 50s-60s, highlights the financial vulnerability of cohabitants, especially when property is in the partner’s name, and legal provisions are lacking.”

Recommendations by UK parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee for cohabitation reforms, include:

  • Reforming family law to protect cohabiting families from financial hardship upon separation.
  • Implementing Law Commission proposals regarding intestacy and family provision claims for cohabiting partners.
  • Providing clear guidance for pension schemes on how to treat surviving cohabitants.
  • Reviewing the inheritance tax regime for parity with married couples and civil partners.
  • Conducting public awareness campaigns to distinguish marriage, civil partnership, and cohabitation.

In 2022, the UK government rejected a call to reform the law for cohabiting partners. Continued and improved public awareness and advocacy efforts are important to potentially bring about change in this area of the law.

If you’re concerned at all about your rights as a cohabiting partner, or if you are considering a cohabitation agreement, then speak to a member of our team on either 0118 957 3425 or complete our online contact form.

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