Many have been waiting for a change in the Law to provide cohabiting couples with greater rights upon separation. Recommendations for change were made by the Law Commission in 2007 and sadly none of those recommendations were brought in by the last Government. It was hoped that this Government may have sought to tackle this inequality but Jonathan Djanogly, the Under Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice, announced last month that there will be no changes to the Cohabitation Law during this parliament.
At present there is no heightened status for unmarried couples who live together As such, the protection which is available has to be found in various areas of the Law with no defined scope specifically for cohabiting couples, particularly in relation to inheritance and financial claims. Cohabitation agreements are becoming increasingly popular as a way of providing some security and peace of main for unmarried couples. However, couples must actively instigate the creation of such agreements; they are not automatically afforded under law.
The Government’s announcement that this will not be changed in the foreseeable future means that the inequality will continue, with the breakdown of unmarried cohabiting couples will be dealt with under a myriad Civil Law.
As cohabitation rates rise, it is worrying that many cohabitants do not realise that they are not protected and have limited financial claims should they separate. This can leave many vulnerable in the event of a split. For example, where a wife can make a claim for maintenance in her own right upon separation where she has contributed fully to the relationship but does not earn as much as the husband the partner in an unmarried couple in the same circumstances cannot.
Regardless of one’s view on marriage and cohabitation, it is clear that in today’s society, with the average age at which couples marry ever increasing (figures from the Office for National Statistics put the current average age of women at 30 and men at 32.1), and some couples choosing not to marry at all, that some type of comprehensive legal address is needed for cohabiting couples.
The case of Kernott and Jones has been heard by the Supreme Court and we are await the decision. This case involves a separated couple and ownership of the cohabitants property. Whether the judgement of this case will address the balance, provide guidance or indeed provide even more uncertainty, family lawyers are eagerly waiting to see.