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Cohabitation and the COVID Effect

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Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that marriage rates in the UK (i.e the number of persons of all ages marrying per 1,000 of the UK population, including same-sex marriages from 2014) are falling. The marriage rate over the two decades from 1998 to 2018 (latest available figures) has fallen from 10.3 to 7.9.

To put this into context, in 1940 the marriage rate was 23.6 (the highest on record), in 1972 it was 17.3, and in 1987 it was 14. While there are some minor year-on-year fluctuations, the overarching trend in recent years is downward and due to the effect of COVID, statisticians are expecting very low marriage rates for 2020 and 2021.

In 2020, according to ONS estimates, there were 3,380,000 cohabiting couples of the opposite sex and 120,000 same sex cohabiting couple families in the UK. In 2000, those figures were 1,855,000 and 45,000 respectively, so it's clear that living together is a growing trend. Currently, almost two in every ten couples in the UK are cohabiting couples (18%).

Lockdown and living together

The lockdown restrictions meant many couples could not get married in 2020/21 and, if they weren't already living together prior to lockdown, the enforced periods of separation during the pandemic is likely to have played a part in the decisions of many couples to start cohabiting.

However, those couples who moved in together hastily to avoid lockdown separation, may not have thought through all the ramifications of cohabitation and, in particular, their legal rights in the long term.

Now the coronavirus restrictions have been reduced and our lives are returning to 'normality', it is the perfect time to take a step back and make sure you understand your rights as a cohabitee and how you can protect yourself in the future.

Legal rights for cohabiting couples

As a cohabiting couple, if your relationship breaks down, you do not have the same legal protections relating to the division of property and wealth as a married couple. If you wish to make a financial settlement claim through the Family Court you will need to provide evidence of your joint intentions for the property and wealth accumulated during your relationship.

For married couples, following a divorce, the court will seek to achieve fairness in a financial settlement claim but when the parties are not married and if there is no evidence to prove each party's interest in the disputed assets, the financially weaker partner may be disadvantaged.

For example, in the case of a woman who moves into a house owned solely by her partner, she will need to be able to prove to the court that she has gained a financial interest in the property during the cohabitation period. She may have paid all the bills associated with running the property while her partner paid the mortgage or perhaps she paid for home improvements which added value to the home, or given up a career to have children and become the primary homemaker. All these things would be taken into consideration if the couple had been married but in a financial dispute following cohabitation, different rules are applied by the court to determine whether the homemaker has acquired a financial interest in the property, if not recorded in records held by the Land Registry.

Clarifying and protecting your interests as a cohabiting couple

It's a good idea to keep a record from the outset about who pays for what when you start living together and what your intentions are but you can protect your interests further by entering into a cohabitation agreement.

Each cohabitation agreement is unique and the issues addressed will depend wholly on your individual circumstances. For instance, the agreement can state the interest you have in the family home, or a family-run business and it can even account for specific items such as cars or heirlooms inherited by one partner. You may also wish to specify intensions for pensions and any other significant financial investments.

Cohabitation agreements are not automatically legally binding and enforceable, but the court is more likely to adhere to the terms if the agreement is fair to both parties and it has been drafted and executed correctly. Each party should take independent legal advice before signing to make sure they understand the ramifications of the agreement.

Does a cohabitation agreement need to clarify arrangements for children?

You can include details about the children in the event that your relationship breaks down, especially relating to financial arrangements, however, when a court is deciding where and with whom children will live, and how much contact they have with non-resident parents, it will always focus on what is best for the children.

Legal disputes relating to children are addressed by the Children Act of 1989 and largely governed by who has parental responsibility for the children. It is important to note that only the birth mother has automatic parental, although unmarried fathers can easily acquire parental responsibility by being named on the child's birth certificate. Similarly, same sex parents will need to give special consideration to the rights they have if the relationship breaks down.

Our page on Being a Parent – your Rights and Obligations explains all about parental responsibility and what this means in the event of relationship breakdown.

Drafting a cohabitation agreement with Goodsells Family Law

We can help you create a cohabitation agreement that protects your interests if you are not married and living with your partner. You can draft an agreement at any time during your relationship and we will help you understand the issues that should be addressed.

Our experienced family law team is situated in Clapham, London and we are happy to help you.

Contact us today on 020 7622 2221 or complete our online enquiry form.

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