When will the legal provisions for unmarried couples catch up with reality?

28 September 2012

A study carried out by sociologists at Leeds University has revealed that the number of unmarried couples with dependent children in the UK has increased by more than 290,000 (34%) in the last decade. Within the same time period, the number of married couples with dependent children has decreased by 320,000. The number of cohabitants in the UK has been  steadily on the rise for several years, so perhaps these figures are no surprise.  What is striking is that the proportion of unmarried couples who have children, 38 %, is the same as for married couples. Cohabitation is no longer a ‘trial run’ before marriage, but an alternative in its own right.

Only 27% of those polled as part of the study said that they believed that people should be married before having children. These new figures serve not only as a reminder that social attitudes change over time, but also highlight the current disparity between social practice and legal provision.  As discussed in a previous blog, there is a glaring lack of legal provision for unmarried couples on the breakdown of a relationship, and even more alarming, a tendency for members of the public to rely on the concept of the ‘common law marriage’ which no longer exists.  Many unmarried partners wrongly believe they have the same rights as married couples when it comes to the breakdown of a relationship.  In reality, cohabitants are treated very differently from married couples, and may have to grapple with outdated concepts about rights in property.

A report conducted in 2007 – 2008 by the British Social Attitudes Report illustrates that nine out of ten people believed that a cohabiting partner should have a right to financial provision if their relationship was a long one, had involved prioritising one partner’s career, or they had children.   This area of law is in need of urgent reform. While the law plays catch up, cohabiting couples should seek legal advice on how best to protect themselves and their dependents in the event of the relationship coming to an end.

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