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Rising Cohabitation and Its Impact On Divorce

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The release of official data on divorce has, in recent years, become an eagerly-awaited event for social trend-spotters, politicians and family lawyers alike.

The first group avidly fillet the figures in an attempt to determine patterns of behaviour which may translate into policy initiatives drawn up by the second. Divorce solicitors, however, cast an eye over the numbers to see if they reflect or differ from what they see on a daily basis.

It was with much interest, therefore, that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) published its most up-to-date information on the subject, covering divorce in England and Wales during 2011.

The most significant element of the material seemed to be the 1.7 per cent drop on the 2010 figure - down to 117,558 from 119,589. However, as always, "the devil", as they say, "is in the detail".

News of a fall in divorce might, on the face of it, suggest that lasting wedded bliss might be back in fashion, particularly when it follows other ONS data proclaiming a rise in marriages - a topic on which my colleague Fiona Wood had been quoted earlier this year.

Any momentum in favour of marriage has been given extra impetus thanks to one part of the new ONS figures showing that fewer people were likely to divorce in 2011 than a decade before.

It is certainly a fact which rings true for divorce solicitors aware of how many people only consider divorce reluctantly, having put in great efforts to make their marriages work. Such a reality, of course, jars with the findings of a Pannone/ICM Research poll, seen on the Huffington Post UK earlier this week, which found that more than half those questioned believed divorce was "too easy".

Setting the figures alongside yet more official research gives a clearer impression of what is really happening in British households.

Just over a month ago, the ONS revealed that the number of couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry had doubled in since 1996.

Fewer individuals feeling that they either want or need to walk down the aisle can mean a reduction in those people divorcing. It doesn't, though, mean cohabitees don't ever break up or have issues to resolve when they do.
One of the common threads of the work undertaken by myself and the rest of Pannone's Family department is an increase in cases involving unmarried couples seeking to make financial claims on behalf of themselves and their children when their relationships come to an end.

How to resolve such situations in a fairer and more straightforward fashion is an issue which Government ministers are coming under steadily greater pressure to deal with and the Law Commission has recently consulted on.

The latest ONS divorce numbers are sure to add even more weight to arguments that separating cohabitees should be given, as several pundits have called it, something akin to 'divorce-lite'; that is, a degree of similarity with how the assets of their married counterparts are divided when they break up.

One of the other interesting nuggets in the latest ONS data is the continuing trend towards divorce later in life. The number of men and women in their sixties or older who choose to divorce has, in fact, doubled in the space of the last decade.

In my opinion and that of the sort of clients in that age group with which we have dealt, it appears to possibly represents a greater lust for life than might have been seen in that age group in previous generations.

We have seen clients whose outlook on life changes when they retire. They have re-evaluated what they want from life. This may not include remaining in a marriage and could even include finding a new partner.