Rights for cohabiting couples: how far will the government dare to go? By Isabel Thornton

Cohabitation|November 9th 2009

I have a personal interest in the Law Commission’s proposals to revamp the law for cohabiting couples, which would give cohabitees the same rights on death as married couples. As a cohabitee of almost six years, who has only recently agreed to make an honest man of her partner, would I be better off “living over the brush” – or is marriage a safer place to be?

The answer is clear.  As the law currently stands, unmarried partners get nothing if their partner dies without making a will.  A lot of people find this very surprising.  What is even more surprising is that the length of the relationship or the existence of children makes no difference. Surely if you have been together over 20 years and have five children together, you would be entitled to something?  I am afraid not.  If one partner dies and the surviving partner wants to challenge the lack of provision for them, they face protracted and costly litigation under the Inheritance Provision for Family and Dependents Act 1975. There is no guarantee of success.

Under the new proposals, couples who live together for more than five years or who have children together will be treated as if they are married, if one of them dies without making a will.

However if you have only been together for between two to five years, the surviving partner would get just half of what a married spouse would get in the same circumstances.

I have some questions:

  1. Do the proposals go far enough? There is little doubt that they are a step in the right direction. However it remains to be seen if our Government is brave enough to implement changes to the law that, to some, may appear to undermine the sanctity of marriage.  Let’s not forget its decision to shy away from the proposed reform to the law for unmarried couples in the event of relationship breakdown.
  2. For how much longer can the changing nature of relationships within our society be ignored? I believe that with increasing numbers of us choosing to cohabit either before marriage or instead of marriage, the law requires reform and fairly rapidly.

The current consultation closes on 28 February 2010 and further details of the proposals can be found on the Law Commission’s website.

By the way, it can also be argued that the existing law for married couples is deficient.  Contrary to popular belief, spouses do not automatically inherit all of their deceased spouse’s estate.  For example, if the estate of the deceased spouse exceeds £250,000, the spouse will only receive the first £250,000, the deceased’s personal items and a right to an income from half of whatever is left.  The children will receive the remainder.  This can often lead to inequitable and unfair results for the surviving spouse – and can also result in financial hardship at what is already a very difficult time.  This, however, is another topic for another day.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. Guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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