The latest statistics on marriage have just been published by the Office for National Statistics. Population estimates by marital status and living arrangements offers a breakdown of British adults over 16 last year.
The figures are in line with previous trends but eye-catching nonetheless. There was a reduction in the percentage of those who are married, from 51.5 per cent in 2014 to 50.6 per cent in 2015. The percentage of those who are “single, never married” rose, meanwhile, from 33.9 per cent in 2014 to 34.5 per cent in 2015. In both cases we see significant movement.
The numbers classed as ‘single, never married’ of course include those who are cohabiting. The report says 9.5 per cent of the population are “cohabiting, never married or civil partnered”. This compares to 9.0 per cent in the 2014 report. The figure was only 6.8 per cent back in 2002.
Part of the movement in these figures may of course be attributable to couples getting married later in life, but the shift in the space of a single year is quite substantial – and this is where alarm bells should start to ring.
As a family law firm we still regularly see those in cohabiting arrangements, sometimes of many years’ duration, who are totally unaware of the financial pitfalls of not being married should the relationship come to an end.
I cannot emphasise enough that there is a huge difference in law between a couple who live together (cohabitees) and a married couple (or a couple in a civil partnership).
Let’s briefly recap the contrasting positions of cohabiting couples and married couples seeking divorce. No matter how long they have lived together, the rights of the former are a world away from those of the latter. Contrary to widely held beliefs there is no status of “common law” spouse in English law and the family courts do not have jurisdiction over a dispute between separating cohabitees. Instead, relationship breakdowns between cohabiting couples, not married or in a civil partnership, are governed by property law.
When married couples seek divorce the Family Courts have wide jurisdiction over all of the parties’ assets and they can decide how those assets are to be shared/ allocated on divorce, regardless of who owns them. They are generally distributed according to the parties’ needs.
However, for unmarried couples the assets remain with the party that owns them, usually the person who bought it – regardless of gender. There are sometimes disputes over this point – for instance, when you have a non-owner cohabitee who is making mortgage payments – but the basic principle that the asset stays with its owner. Over the years we have seen many women who were in cohabiting relationships of 20 years plus which subsequently floundered and we have had to tell them they have no claim in family law.It’s devastating, particularly when they have lived all those years with the certainty of being “common law wives” but without the realisation that this non-existent status provides no protection at all.
The one exception to this rule comes into play when the cohabiting couple have dependent children. The family court will make what provision it can for the children, but still will not be able to directly provide for the “common law wife”. She may continue to live with the child/ children in a property provided for them, whether that is the current family home or somewhere else, but that will be because it is in the child’s best interests and not because she has a legal right to be provided with a property.She will lose that security when the children attain their majority or cease full time education, and will then have to find her own home.
It is a sad fact of life that a large percentage of relationships do break down. This applies to cohabiting couples just as much as it does to those getting divorced. But the legal status of the latter must be clearly understood: if a cohabitant depends on their partner for a roof over their head and food on the table, their future may be very insecure without the protections provided by marriage in the event the relationship ends.
Read the ONS bulletin here.
Image by Photography By Shaeree via Flickr