COHABITATION IS ON THE INCREASE IS IT TIME FOR THE GOVERNMENT TO IMPLEMENT LEGISLATION TO REFORM THE LAW FOR UNMARRIED COUPLES?

The Office for National Statistics reported in January 2012 that

- In 2011 there were 17.9 million families in the UK. Of these 12.0 million consisted of a married couple with or without children

- The number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families increased significantly, from 2.1 million in 2001 to 2.9 million in 2011. The number of dependent children living in opposite sex cohabiting couple families increased significantly, from 1.3 million to 1.8 million over the same period

This begs the question as to how much longer can the gulf between the financial remedies available on breakdown of the relationship to married people on the one hand and cohabitants on the other be allowed to remain so wide? 

The Law Commission suggested reforms as far back as 2007.  They focused on the financial hardship suffered by cohabitants or their children on the termination of their relationship by separation or death and concentrated in particular on the following issues:

- Whether cohabitants should have access to any remedies providing periodical payments, lump sums, or transfers of property from one party to the other when they separate.
A review of the operation of existing remedies providing capital awards (such as lump sums and property transfers) for the benefit of children under the Children Act 1989.

- Whether, where a cohabitant dies without a will (intestate), the surviving partner should have automatic rights to inherit. The law currently gives surviving spouses an automatic inheritance in such circumstances. Cohabitants can normally only benefit from the estate in such cases if the courts (under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975) grant them a discretionary award on the basis of their needs.

- A review of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 as it applies to cohabitants and their children.

- Whether contracts between cohabitants, setting out how they will share their property in the event of the relationship ending, should be legally enforceable, and, if so, in what circumstances.

In September, the Law Commission responded to the Government’s announcement that reform will not be implemented during the current Parliament. It noted the Government’s cautious response to its recommendations and expressed the hope that implementation of the reforms it had put forward back in 2007 will not be delayed beyond the early days of the next Parliament, in view of what it described as ‘the hardship and injustice caused by the current law’.

The Law Commission went on to say: ‘The prevalence of cohabitation, and of the birth of children to couples who live together, means that the need for reform of the law can only become more pressing over time.’

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