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Cohabitees and the common misconception about common-law marriage

Posted on 28 November 2017 by Kate Clark

Cohabitees and the common misconception about common-law marriage

The family law group Resolution commissioned a ComRes poll which found that "two-thirds of people in cohabiting relationships are unaware that there is no such as thing as ‘common-law marriage’ in this country". Cohabitants are the fastest growing type of family in the UK, forming 17.5% of all family units, and yet there is still no clear legal framework to define the rights of cohabitees. In fact, as the poll shows, many people still believe – incorrectly - that if a couple live together for a certain amount of time they will acquire similar rights to being married.  

Common law marriage was abolished in 1753. The misconception that it protects individuals in relationships not legally bound by marriage can lead to the financially weaker party in the relationship, often the woman, being left in a vulnerable position in the event that the relationship breaks down. The reality is that a couple could live together for many years, making an equal contribution towards the relationship and, aside from being able to establish some general property rights or provision for any children, one party could be left with nothing. In the worst scenarios this can even lead to homelessness.

Resolution continues to try to put the rights of cohabitees on the legal agenda. It recognises that modern laws are now desperately needed to regulate modern relationships. How far away we are from new legislation however, which is notoriously slow to be approved, is anyone's guess. In the meantime, cohabiting couples ought to  strive for financial transparency from the outset and to each commit their shared intentions to paper through a cohabitation agreement. Cohabitation agreements are legally binding and enforceable contracts which can be agreed at the time a couple purchases their home or moves in together: they are a statement of intent and provide an important point of reference if a relationship does break down. By putting such an agreement in place, cohabitees can protect themselves against a nasty and potentially expensive surprise further down the line.  

For more on cohabitation, read our chapter 'Singled Out: The Cohabitation Trap' from our book on family law:  19th Century Laws for 21st Century Relationships.