Unmarried couples who split up should have the right to claim pay-offs in a divorce-style settlement, the Government’s legal advisers said yesterday.
Dumped partners, who are entitled to nothing under present law, should be allowed to take action after being in a relationship for as little as two years, said the Law Commission.
They could claim lump sums, fight for the right to live in the family home and possibly have a share of their partner’s pension. If the proposals become law, megarich celebrities could be hit for millions if they ditch their live-in lover for a younger version.
There are more than 2.2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales, with 1.25 million children, according to the last official figures from 2001. Government forecasts suggest there will be 3.8 million couples living together by 2031.
Scotland has already given cohabiting couples more rights but has stopped short of treating them the same as those who are married.
Unlike married partners, those who had cohabited would not be expected to provide ongoing maintenance payments and there would be no principle that assets should be split equally.
The commission said: “Merely moving in with someone would not give rise to any entitlement to a remedy.”
There could also be an opt-out scheme for unwed couples, giving them the freedom to make their own arrangements for what would happen to their assets should the relationship end. Law commissioner Stuart Bridge said: “The law that currently applies to resolve property disputes between such couples on separation is unclear and complicated and it can produce unfair outcomes. This causes serious hardship not only to cohabitants them selves, but also to their children. We do not accept the argument that such reform would undermine marriage. We consider that our scheme strikes the right balance between the need to alleviate hardship and the need to protect couples’ freedom of choice.”
Family law expert Mark Burns said: “Married couples will still have a great advantage when it comes to financial protection.
The report said the majority of couples who live together wrongly believe they are protected by “common law marriage” and would be entitled to a share of the assets when a relationship breaks down.
Divorce lawyer Marilyn Stowe said: “At present, a wealthier cohabitee can kick out a partner of many years and trade them in for another without any liability whatsoever. Changes have been made in many countries such as Australia and Scotland. We are lagging far behind the times.”
But Jill Kirby of the Centre for Policy Studies said: “If a man and a woman want to create a family together then the most durable contract available to them is marriage. If they decide not to marry then I think consequences must flow from that.”