The Myth of “Common Law Marriage”

November 21st 2022

It is reported that the total number of cohabiting couples has increased by 2.1 million since 1996, with 22% of couples living together in 2021 choosing to remain as cohabitees, rather than marry.

The legal position for unmarried couples is widely misunderstood, with couples living together often referred to as “common law spouses”. Research suggests that 46% of individuals are under the impression that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage, however, cohabitation does not give a couple any legal status, regardless of how long they have been together, or whether they have children.

Unlike married couples, cohabitees do not have the right to a partner’s pension on separation, no automatic right to claim against the property of an ex-partner and they can not apply for financial assistance from their ex-partner, save for child maintenance, if applicable. 

In a bid for reform, the Women and Equalities Committee published a report in August 2022, recognising the inferior protections for cohabitees and proposing recommendations for reform. Recommendations included reforming family law to better protect cohabiting couples and their children from financial hardship in the event of separation.

It was however reported last week that the Government has rejected the key recommendations, stating that existing work on the law of marriage and divorce must conclude before it could consider changes to the law in respect of cohabitees.

For now, it remains the case that in England and Wales, couples who live together do not have the same legal rights as married couples, and on separation, have very limited legal rights and responsibilities towards one another.

"It is deeply disappointing that the Government has closed off the possibility of better legal protections for cohabiting partners for the foreseeable future. In doing so it relies on flawed logic. Weddings law and financial provision on divorce are wholly separate areas of family law. There is no reason the Government should not prioritise law reform for cohabiting partners alongside this."