Millions of couples choosing to live together rather than marry are unaware of the financial risks they face, according to legal experts.
Unmarried couples are now the fastest growing family type in the UK.
Their number has doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017, says family law group Resolution, which represents 6,500 family justice professionals.
But many are uncertain or unaware of how their legal rights differ from those of married couples, according to a report by the group to highlight the UK’s Cohabitation Awareness week.
Common-law marriage myths
The research revealed:
- 66% of unmarried couples living together were unaware that ‘common law marriages’ have no legal status in Britain
- 80% were unclear about their rights when an unmarried couple separated
- 79% of people agree unmarried couples who separate should have greater legal protection
- 84% of people felt the government should make the rights of unmarried couples on separation clearer.
Resolution chair Nigel Shepherd says the survey shows that the law needs to change.
“Many still believe in the myth that they will get financial rights through common-law marriage. This means millions of cohabiting couples are unaware that they don’t have automatic claims, for example on the property they live in, if they split up. This makes it less likely they’ll take steps to protect themselves.
Unmarried couples have fewer rights
“In many cases, this lack of protection affects women more than men, as they are still more likely to have taken time off work to raise children.”
He explained that under current laws, neither unmarried partner has a call on the other for financial help, regardless of how long they lived together.
Under current law it’s possible to live with someone for decades and even have children together and then simply walk away without taking any responsibility for a former partner if the relationship breaks down,” said Shepherd.
Some examples of how the rights of unmarried couples differ from those who are married include:
- If one partner dies without a will, the surviving partner does not automatically inherit anything from their estate unless the property is jointly owned
- Partners living together cannot access the other’s bank account if they die
- Unmarried partners can separate without a divorce
- A partner of an unmarried couple has no right to stay in a rented home if the other partner asks them to leave
Unmarried woman wins cash claim
Meanwhile, an unmarried woman whose partner died has won a claim for a fixed-sum bereavement payment from the government of £12,980 generally only paid to married people.
Jakki Smith lost her partner John Bulloch who died from an infection following the removal of a tumour from his foot.
Her claim for the allowance was denied because she had not been married to him for 16 years before his death.
The Court of Appeal agreed her human rights had been breached and dismissed a decision by the High Court rejecting her claim.
The court argued that the law needed reform, but that judges had no power to intervene.