Resolution calls for more rights for unmarried couples

New research from family justice body Resolution has found most people back a change in the law to give cohabiting people more rights.

Currently couples have few or no rights in the event of a relationship breakdown meaning that unlike married couples there is no mechanism for splitting assets and no ability to claim help for childcare costs from an ex-partner in order to be able to work. This is despite a huge growth in the number of couples and families that cohabit rather than marry.

A nationwide poll carried out by Whitestone Insight on behalf of Resolution found around half (47%) of cohabitees are unaware that they lack rights should they split up.

  • 59% of people polled back better legal protections for cohabiting people.
  • 74% of cohabitees agree that ‘the current laws surrounding cohabitation are unfit for today’s modern society’
  • 75% of Resolution members surveyed said they support a change in the law to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples

When asked about their concerns in the event of a relationship ending, 35% said they feared having nowhere to live – if a property is in one partner’s name the other partner has no automatic claim on it in the event of a break up. One in three said they feared significant financial hardship.

What’s more, 50% of cohabitees said they had no plans to get married while 34% of those expressing an opinion said they don’t believe in marriage. Over a third said they chose to spend money on a deposit for a house or flat instead of a wedding, while 28% said they started a family instead.

A separate survey of over 200 family justice professionals who are members of Resolution found most deal with cases involving cohabiting couples at least once a month and one in ten deal with a new case every week. Eight in ten reported that unmarried couples are surprised by their lack of legal rights.

Just 14% of Resolution members said they often work with clients to prepare cohabitation agreements – legal documents that set out each partner’s assets and set out how they will be divided in the event of a split. 90% of those surveyed and expressing an opinion said they support a changing the law to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples.

It’s 40 years since Resolution was set up to support separating families, by reducing conflict and creating more amicable, long-lasting solutions that would benefit them and any children they may have. To mark the anniversary the organisation has published its Vision for Family Justice, setting out the changes that now need to be made to address the current issues facing the family justice system.

Chief among its recommendations is to improve the rights of cohabitees. According to House of Commons Library research 1.5 million couples cohabited in 1996 but that figure increased by 144% over the following 25 years to 3.6 million in 2021. According to the recent Resolution polling 83% of respondents believe that cohabiting will become even more popular in future. Jo Edwards, Chair of Resolution’s Family Law Reform Committee, said:

“Resolution members are committed to ensuring that all people going through relationship breakdown, including those in an unmarried relationship, are treated fairly and in a way that doesn’t cause financial hardship. But as the law stands millions of people leaving cohabiting relationships are excluded from accessing the sort of support and legal protections that would go a long way to making the process clearer and fairer for everyone. Our members see day in, day out, the hardship that this causes people.

This research has a very clear message – that many people do not want to get married or feel unable to do so. Those choices – or lack of choices – should not exclude them from legal protection if their relationship comes to an end.

As Resolution looks to the future it’s clear that reforming the law around cohabitants rights on separation to ensure they have proper legal protections is both vital and widely supported. The need to reflect changing social mores is why Resolution successfully campaigned for no-fault divorce for decades and it’s why we will continue to call for a variety of reforms which will improve the family justice system for all who need to use it.”

Dr Andy Hayward, Associate Professor in Family Law at Durham Law School, Durham University said:

“It’s naïve to think, or romantically hope, that marriage works for everyone. Cohabitation reform must be taken seriously.

It’s alarming that so many couples find themselves without any support from the law. And what exacerbates the issue is that many couples believe they do not need to put their legal affairs in order and are already protected as ‘common law spouses’. But this is completely untrue. Merely living together does not create legal entitlements, yet the common law marriage myth is widespread and endures with potentially devastating consequences for people and families where relationships end.

It is time for society to confront the reality of modern families and offer cohabiting couples the basic legal protections they deserve. Cohabitation reform is long overdue. Other countries like Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have all introduced legal protections and they have been available to cohabiting couples for quite some time.”

Resolution have officially launched its Vision for Family Justice at a reception in parliament this week (Monday 27th November).

Other key recommendations include:

  • There should be more public funding for early legal information and advice.
  • The way child arrangements are handled should be improved.
  • The family courts need to meet the needs of families.
  • The vulnerable must be protected in the family court.

Commenting on the Vision for Family Justice, Natasha Grande, Head of the Family team at Wilsons Solicitors, said:

“The Vision for Family Justice, contains clarity on the policy campaigning by Resolution. This thorough document puts at the forefront the need for cohabitation reform, on the long overdue legal protections required for cohabiting couples. Unsurprisingly, it has found most people back a change in the law to give cohabiting people more rights.  The Vision for Family Justice also sees the big picture, focussing on the other reforms needed in family law to make the system fairer: more funding for early legal advice, more protection for the vulnerable, how to ensure that the court system caters for the modern family and how to make family law fit for purpose (have pre-nuptial agreements made binding with certain safeguards, termed maintenance orders etc.) Wherever you fall in the debate between retaining the discretionary elements of family law and advocating for clearer statute,  the detail in the Vision for Family Justice is a giant leap for awareness of the difficulties facing families in the family law justice system and timely ahead of the election year.”

We have reached out to our Wills and Probate Community and will update with thoughts and quotes in due course.

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