05/11/2012 07:37 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The Great Cohabitation Conundrum

"The past", explains one of the characters in LP Hartley's classic novel 'The Go-Between', "is like a foreign country".

The rate at which our professional and personal lives have changed in the space of only less than 20 years makes it seem like a very distant land indeed.

Take 1996, for example. In the space of those 12 months, football was "coming home" during Euro 1996 while two royal households were split asunder thanks to divorces involving Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson. Another momentous break-up saw Take That head their separate ways and, as we bade the first big boy band goodbye, we said "hello" and "zig-a-zig-ah" to The Spice Girls.

In those innocent days, who would have thought that we'd not only be able to talk on our mobile 'phones but surf the 'net, work and even turn on the TV and lights at home?

British domestic life was also rather different, as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just revealed. Marriage then was still seen as something of the rule and not the exception. However, in the years since, there has been a steady decline in the number of couples choosing to wed, save for a seemingly brief, confetti-filled flurry in 2010 (

Divorces in England and Wales have continued to climb - up 4.9 per at the last count (

The greatest shift, though, seems to be in those who have not even formally exchanged vows. The ONS has just published figures which make clear the degree to which family life is changing.

According to fresh data (, the number of men and women in the UK choosing to cohabit rather than marry has almost doubled in the last 16 years, from 1.5 million 1996 to 2.9 million in 2012. In addition, the number of children living in these cohabiting households has doubled - from 900,000 to 1.8 million - over the same period.

That same decade-and-a-half has seen the number of married couples fall by very nearly half a million and single parents now account for some 26 per cent of all families with dependent children in the UK.

The picture which the ONS figures portray is significantly different to when I was growing up, let alone from when my parents were young.

However, in spite of all that, if you asked me whether I was truly surprised, I'd have to say that I wasn't in the slightest.

What the ONS has detailed accurately reflects my own experiences and those of my colleagues in Pannone's Family department.

We find ourselves handling an increasing number of cohabitation disputes, including those involving the children of unmarried couples.

Together with decreasing marriage numbers and the frequency with which we are dealing with couples divorcing in their late twenties and early thirties, it's possible to conclude that fewer couples seem committed to the idea of marrying. Choosing to legally separate rather than work through marital difficulties is also no longer seen as the social stigma with which it had been regarded in years past.

The newly-documented increase in popularity of cohabitation does appear to add weight to calls for Government to introduce legislation to clarify the status of couples who choose not to marry and their rights should they break up.

One of the reasons why meeting those demands now become something of an imperative is that unmarried couples don't have the ability to structure the way they divide any joint assets in the way that those who wed do. Instead of divorce law, many disputes are dealt with by property law instead. As a result, such splits can be complex and occasionally costly.

Perhaps the most notable instance was the case in which Leonard Kernott issued a claim against his former partner, Patricia Jones, 15 years after he had walked out of the home which they shared. In the interim, Ms Jones had continued to pay the mortgage on the Essex property.

Mr Kernott's claim for a half share of the value of the house only came to an end in November 2011, three years after he began legal proceedings. He was awarded a 10 per cent share instead.

Such complications can be partly minimised by taking out a cohabitation agreement, determining in advance the terms on which an unmarried couple will part ways if they're unfortunate enough to break up.

Although the documents are becoming more popular, they're still not common enough to suggest that the growing volume of cohabitees and their children will not experience difficulties in the event of a split.

To some, legislation to empower unmarried couples is akin to undermining the institution of marriage. Many experts consider, though, that having no framework or regulation in place risks ever greater complications in the future than exist right now.