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Legal Update: Government Rejects Cohabitation Law Changes in the UK

Under the UK’s existing cohabitation laws, unmarried cohabiting couples do not have the same legal rights and protections as married or civil partners. This means that in the event of separation, cohabiting couples who are not married or in a civil partnership have no right to the assets of their partner, no matter how long they have been together and whether they have children. 

29 June 2023
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Given that as of 2021, around 22% of couples who lived together were cohabiting and not married or in a civil partnership, the current law leaves many legally exposed in the event of separation. 

Unfortunately, many sensible reforms by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee in this area have recently been rejected by the government. In this article, we will discuss the commission’s recommendations, the government’s response, and what may happen in the future when it comes to new laws for cohabiting couples in the UK.

Women and Equalities Committee recommendations

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee report entitled, ‘The rights of cohabiting partners’ pulls no punches when it comes to the risks posed by unmarried cohabiting couples:

“It is staggering that so many people in England and Wales believe in the common law marriage myth. This misplaced belief in legal protections can have profound consequences for cohabiting partners—many of whom do not realise the reality of their situation until it is too late”. 

The report makes a number of recommendations, as follows:

  1. Run a public awareness campaign to highlight the legal distinctions between getting married, forming a civil partnership, or choosing to live together as cohabiting partners

  2. Run a targeted information campaign aimed at women in religious communities where religious-only marriages are commonplace, highlighting the risks of not having a ceremony which meets legal formalities. 

  3. Adopt the Law Commission’s 2007 proposals for an opt-out cohabitation scheme

  4. Reform the law regarding intestacy and family provision claims for cohabiting partners

  5. Publish clear guidelines on how pension schemes should treat surviving cohabiting partners, and

  6. Review the inheritance tax regime so it is the same for cohabiting partners as it is for married and civil partners.

The government was given two months to respond to the report’s recommendations on cohabitation rights in the UK

How did the government respond to the recommendations?

In the ‘Rights of cohabiting partners: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report’ published in October 2022, various governmental departments pushed back on the recommendations of new law changes for cohabiting couples. 

Recommendations one and two were partially accepted by the Ministry of Justice. The MoJ stated that in terms of a public information campaign, the government is already working in this area by providing education on what marriage is and the rights and protections afforded. The notion that children should fully digest and remember this information for later life is somewhat questionable. They then go on to state, “Given the existing action in this space, the Government does not consider a national campaign necessary”. 

Recommendation three on the opt-out cohabitation scheme was rejected outright. This was on the basis that existing work being carried out on the law of marriage and divorce needs to conclude before considering changes to the law for unmarried cohabiting couples. 

Recommendation four was also rejected on the basis that this can only be done in the context of a wider consultation on cohabitation rights. It also reminds the committee (which it no doubt already knew) that cohabiting couples are free to set their affairs in order to ensure provision is made for their partner by drafting a Will. For more information about how to draft a Will, read our recent blog.

Recommendation five on pension guidance for cohabiting couples was “accepted in principle” by the Department for Work and Pensions. They will now consider “whether non-legislative broad guidance would be appropriate, having assessed the matter with the Pensions Regulator and key stakeholders”. 

Recommendation six was rejected by HM Treasury, stating, “The Government has no plans at present to extend the longstanding treatment of spouses and civil partners to cohabiting partners”. 

Interestingly and rather missing the point of the recommendations entirely, the government felt it appropriate to recommend that any future review and consultation in this area should take into account that civil partnerships are “now available for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, allowing couples who do not wish to marry to enter into a legally recognised relationship which provides the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage”. 

Final words on new laws for cohabiting couples in the UK

Without any realistic prospect of cohabitation law reform in the near future, it is likely that more and more couples who have made the conscious decision not to get married or enter into a civil partnership will consider a cohabitation agreement. While cohabitation agreements offer significant advantages, including the avoidance of litigation cost and uncertainty, individual autonomy, and the preservation of assets, it is important to consider their enforceability and cost. 

It may also be difficult for some to even raise the prospect of rights following separation, as this may be perceived as placing doubt over their commitment to the relationship. As such, while it is possible for some unmarried cohabiting couples to arrange a cohabitation agreement and/or Will, proper legal reform offering protection for all is still sorely needed.

Guillaumes LLP Solicitors is a full-service law firm based in Weybridge, Surrey. We have a highly experienced family law team who can assist you with any legal matter, including cohabitation agreements. To make an appointment, please get in touch or call us on 01932 840 111.