Cohabitation: should the law be changed?

We’ve been closely following the case of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who have just won their battle in court to be granted a civil partnership. As well as the case raising questions around equality – until now only same sex couples have legally been allowed to enter into a civil partnership – there are ethical issues too.

Until the Steinfeld-Keidan case, the only option for heterosexual couples was marriage. However, for those who didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, couples individually are left unprotected legally in the event of a separation.

There are currently around 3.3m cohabitants living in Britain today. According to statistics from the Office for National Statistics Families and Households in the UK 2017 report, co-habiting couples are the second largest family type – and the fastest growing. In 1996 there were just 1.5 million cohabiting coupes, compared to the 3.3 million today, accounting for around 17% of all families in the UK. A reason for this is most likely to be down to the fact that a lot of couple choose to cohabit before they marry.

However, this brings with it some grey areas. According to current law, despite common misconceptions, unmarried partners have no legal right to partners possessions in the event of separation. Even upon death, unless there is a will, any assets will not automatically transfer to the surviving partner.

Therefore, it is possible to live with someone for decades, have children together, but if the relationship breaks down there is no responsibility for either former partner. In Scotland, there is legislation which allows couples to apply to a cohabitant for a financial provision, but it is not guaranteed.

This opens up a debate around vulnerability, particularly for stay-at-home parents. Those who may have brought up children within a family relationship for 20 or 30 years, could find themselves left in poverty upon separation without the financial backing of the partner.

This would not be the case if heterosexual couples were allowed to enter into civil partnerships, as these are formal, legal recognitions of a relationship – just without the religious connotations.

As the Steinfeld-Keidan case resolves in their favour, some campaigners are calling for the Government to recognise that people’s living arrangements are changing, as we, as a society, are changing. In fact, according to a recent poll, 84% of people thought the Government should take steps to make sure unmarried cohabiting couples knew they didn’t have the same legal protection as married couples, including:

Cohabiting couples are not legally obliged to financially support each other in the event of a separation. Married couples do.

As an unmarried partner, and “tenant” within a co-habiting couple, you have no rights to stay in accommodation if you are asked to leave – whereas each married partner has the right to live in the matrimonial home.

If one co-habiting partner dies without leaving a will, the surviving partner will not automatically inherit – unless they jointly own the property. Married partners will automatically inherit some, if not all of the estate.

If you would like further information about civil partnerships, marriage or divorce, wills or any other aspect of conveyancing, contact Downs Solicitors for more information.