The rights of cohabiting couples have long been misunderstood – many couples believe that by living together they are considered ‘common law spouses’. Whilst this may be the position in other countries around the world, in England and Wales there is no such thing as a ‘common law spouse’ and as such, cohabiting couples do not currently enjoy the same legal rights as married couples.
The Office of National Statistics has recently released a report indicating that cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type and the second largest family type in the UK. There are now 3.3 million cohabiting families – this figure has more than doubled since 1996.
Cohabiting couples that separate are currently able to make financial claims on behalf of their children (to include the provision of a property for them to live in during their minority) under Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989, however, there is little legal protection for the separating parties themselves. Whilst separating spouses can rely on the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to deal with their financial claims arising on divorce, there is no similar legal framework for separating cohabitees. Indeed, if there are no children and the property the separating cohabitees were living in is not owned in joint names, then the non-legal owner may be forced to rely upon the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 to establish a financial interest in the property.
Whilst there is a draft bill being considered by Parliament addressing the rights of cohabitees, this is still in its very early stages and it is likely to be some time before there is a change in the law.