Anticipating change: The future of cohabitation law in the UK

Family lawyers were understandably disappointed when, at the end of 2022, the Government rejected calls to reform the law relating to cohabiting couples – unmarried couples living together.

It is therefore with renewed hope that there is possibly a change on the horizon. On 10 October this year at the Labour Party conference, the Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, confirmed that a Labour Government would reform the law for cohabiting couples. This would not only relate to relationship breakdown, but also how cohabiting couples are treated under the law currently when one partner dies, particularly if the deceased dies intestate (without a will).

The rise in cohabiting couples

In 1996 there were 1.5 million cohabiting couples in the UK. That figure grew to 3.6 million in 2021. In England and Wales, the number of people in a cohabiting same sex relationship was 476,000, an increase of 1.3% since 2011. This is a growing proportion of the population when considering that some of those relationships will break down, and inevitably, of those relationships that breakdown, a large number will involve couples with children.

The term “common-law spouse” is widely used, and I have even seen it when completing official documents, for example, insurance application forms, when personal information is requested. Unfortunately, it is a mythical concept as cohabiting partners are not treated in the same way as spouses or civil partners upon relationship breakdown.

What are the current laws when a cohabiting couple separates?

Currently the laws and court remedies which apply upon relationship breakdown are wholly different to those which apply when a married couple or couple in a civil partnership separate. Remedies through the court are limited and primarily relate to ownership of property and/or financial support for the child or children of the family.

Unlike the laws governing the breakdown of a marriage or civil partnership, there is no entitlement to a share of the other party’s pension, or to maintenance payments for an ex-partner, regardless of how long the parties have been together and whether they have any children.

The law in this particular area is long overdue for reform, and the seeds of hope have now been planted. However, history has shown that this is likely to take some time to come to fruition.

How our family solicitors can help

The family team at Moore Barlow have a wealth of experience in cohabitation breakdown, and relationship breakdown in general. We work closely with our colleagues in the private wealth, contentious probate and property teams to help and advise clients navigating their way through this tricky area of law.

Contact our family team to discover how we can help