Should Couples Who Live Together Have The Same Rights As Those Who Are Married?

22/09/2011 12:28 | Updated 22 May 2015

I've been 'happily unmarried' to my partner for eight years and have no plans to change that.

But I do find it rather galling that the Ministry of Justice has recently abandoned plans to give couples who live together the same rights as those who are married - just as I get fed up with the assumption that couples who choose not to tie the knot are less committed to their relationship than those who do.

Under the rejected Law Commission proposals, cohabiting couples would have been given inheritance rights after living together for two years. After five years together they would have been treated the same way as if they were married, and if they had a child together they would have been given automatic inheritance rights if one of them died without a will, no matter how long they had been together.

The report, which was drawn up in 2009 under the last Labour Government, was intended to update the law to better reflect the make-up of "modern families."

It said: "While some may find this idea controversial, research indicates that it would match public expectations and attitudes."

That sounds reasonable to me, but now that the Government has shelved plans to implement these measures, couples who live together will continue to be confused about their rights.

We've all heard the expression 'common law' husband or wife - but in legal terms this is essentially meaningless.

Unless you draw up a contract or make a will detailing what will happen to your assets if you split up or if one of you dies, then you might find that you're in for a nasty shock when the worst happens.

Of course, making a will is the sensible thing to do - but many couples (especially young couples) just don't get round to doing it and can't face talking about what would happen if they split up because they don't want to ruin the romance.

The proposed changes would have clarified the situation - and not, as family campaigners would have us believe, have undermined the sanctity of marriage.

Besides, the fact remains that we're not as keen on marriage as we used to be.

Since 1981 the number of marriages conducted every year has fallen by a third. A total of 231,490 couples got hitched in 2008, the lowest number since 1895.

Instead, we're increasingly choosing to live together.

A report from Resolution Family Law says that the number of cohabiting couples increased by over 60 per cent between 1996 and 2006, making it the fastest growing family type in the UK.

As of 2006, one in six couples in the UK were cohabiting - and there are predicted to be 3.8 million of us 'living in sin' in England and Wales by 2021.

However, many people - usually the married ones - argue that if couples want the same rights then there's a simple solution: they just have to say 'I do'.

But many couples either don't want to - or can't - tie the knot.

Some of us, me included, take the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach. Why bother putting a ring on it if they're happy as they are?

Others have more practical considerations.

Couples who have already been married and divorced are often wary of repeating past mistakes. As a result, they're in no hurry to get hitched all over again, especially if they were badly burned the first time round.

Then there's the small matter of money. While it's true that you can have a basic register office wedding for the bargain price of £77, most of would prefer to celebrate the occasion with a party, a new dress and a honeymoon.

Given that new figures reveal a sharp rise in unemployment, splashing out a wedding is less likely to be a priority.

Not only that, as a result of the recession, increasing numbers of couples can't afford to get divorced so that they're free to remarry.

Figures show that divorce is at a 40-year low in England and Wales because couples can't afford to pay for legal fees.

Factor in other reasons that put people off getting married - such as complicated family issues or religion and living together starts to seem like a sensible option.

And it's about time the law began to reflect this.


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