A cohabiting couple refers to two people who are living together, in a committed relationship, with no legal recognition of their relationship. Because they are not married or in a civil partnership, in the eyes of the law their relationship has no formal status.
The term 'cohabiting' simply means living together, and this term relates to anyone who shares a home, regardless of their relationship. A cohabiting couple, however specifically relates to two people who are living together in a relationship that resembles a marriage or civil partnership.
Are Cohabiting Couples Protected by Law?
Contrary to popular belief, cohabiting couples are not protected in any way by law in England and Wales. This is because the law, as it currently stands, does not recognise unmarried partners. This means that if the relationship were to break down, the law would not step in to ensure that assets are divided fairly between the couple.
It also means that if one person dies without making a Will, their partner would not be entitled to inherit anything from them, because inheritance laws (called the Rules of Intestacy) don't recognise unmarried partners.
Many cohabitees mistakenly believe that they are legally recognised as being in a 'common law marriage' but there is no such thing in England and Wales. In a survey conducted by family law group, Resolution, it was found that around 80% of cohabiting couples were unclear of the legal rights (or lack of) for cohabiting couples.
Cohabitation is the UK's Fastest Growing Family Type
There are currently in the region of 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK, and this number is growing rapidly, having more than doubled between 1996 and 2016. It has been confirmed as the fastest growing family type in the UK and is showing no sign of slowing down.
Experts have speculated on the reasons for this, with many suggesting that the declining popularity of marriage is a key factor. The modern custom of living together for a period of time before tying the knot has also been cited, as this has only become common practice in recent decades.
Cohabitation and Civil Partnerships
The increasing number of couples living together with no legal protection has caused the issue of cohabitation to climb higher on the public agenda. Some people suggest that a change to the law on civil partnerships could be the answer.
Currently, civil partnerships are only open to same sex couples, and have been since they were introduced in 2005. Following a high profile court case that reached the Supreme Court last year though, this could be set to change
In this case, a heterosexual couple have been embroiled in a legal battle over their right to enter into a civil partnership despite not being a same sex couple. They have two children together and want legal recognition for their relationship, but they don't agree with the principles of marriage so want to go down the route of a civil partnership instead.
In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in the couple's favour, stating that it was a breach of their human rights to deny them the option of entering into a civil partnership. This has paved the way for a change to the law, but the government has not yet confirmed what the changes will look like or when these will take place.
So How Can Cohabiting Couples Protect Themselves?
Although cohabiting couples can't gain legal recognition for their relationship without entering into a marriage (or civil partnership if they're a same sex couple) there are other steps they can take.
One option is to put in place a Cohabitation Agreement. This is a legal document which is also sometimes known as a 'Living Together Agreement' and it sets out terms should the relationship break down in the future. It can set out who should get what in the event of a separation, and also stipulate who is responsible for certain household tasks and everyday costs during the course of the relationship.
If you'd like to find out more about whether a Cohabitation Agreement could be the right solution for you, speak to our Family Law Solicitors. At Co-op Legal Services, our Fixed Fee Cohabitation Agreement costs £750 +VAT.