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Marriage Decline Shows Importance Of Cohabitants Knowing Their Rights – Family Law


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On the 19th May the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’)
published its latest annual figures for the number of marriages
that took place in England and Wales, for the year 2019.

The figures show a continuing decline in marriage rates. There
were 219,850 marriages in total in England and Wales in 2019, which
is a decrease of 6.4% from 2018.

Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples have now fallen to their
lowest level on record since 1862. In 2019, for men, there were
18.6 marriages per 1,000 unmarried men, and for women, there were
17.2 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women.

Commenting on the figures, Dr James Tucker, Head of Health and
Life Events Analysis at the Office for National Statistics,

“Today’s data show a decline in marriage rates for
opposite-sex couples while rates for same-sex couples have remained
the same.

“The number of opposite-sex marriages has fallen by 50%
since 1972 [when divorce became easier]. This decline is a likely
consequence of increasing numbers of men and women delaying
marriage, or couples choosing to live together rather than marry,
either as a precursor to marriage or as an alternative.”

In fact, figures previously published by the ONS confirm that
more couples are choosing to cohabit as an alternative to marriage.
Statistics for 2020 showed that in that year 13.1% of the
population aged 16 years and over were cohabiting, compared with
11.3% in 2010. Marriage is in decline, and cohabitation is on the

These figures emphasize how important it is that those who
choose to cohabit rather than to marry know what their rights are
in the event that the relationship breaks down.

No automatic rights for cohabitants

In particular, cohabitants must understand that they will not
have the same rights as those who choose to marry. There is no such
thing as a ‘common law marriage’ – cohabitants will
never gain the same rights as married couples, no matter how long
their relationship.

Accordingly, a cohabitant whose relationship has broken down
will have no automatic right to claim financial provision for
themselves from their former partner, in the same way that someone
who was married can. The law effectively says that when cohabitants
split up each party simply keeps what is theirs.

This can obviously lead to grave financial hardship if all of
the assets belonged to the other party, including the home in which
the couple lived.

For example, someone who lived with a partner in the
partner’s home may find after a long relationship that they
have no interest in the property, and are therefore homeless. They
will also not be able to claim maintenance or a lump sum of money
from the partner, or seek a share of the partner’s pension.

What the law can do for cohabitants

But that is not quite the end of the story. Whilst the law does
not give automatic rights to cohabitants, there are some legal steps that a cohabitant may be able to

For example, there are certain circumstances in which a
cohabitant may be able to claim a share of their former
partner’s property, such as where they have made financial
contributions towards the purchase or improvement of the property,
or where they can show a common intention between the parties that
they should acquire a share in the property. These cases are quite
complex, and anyone wishing to make such a claim should first seek
expert legal advice.

There is another type of claim that a cohabitant can make
against their former partner. Where there are children of the
relationship, the party with whom the children are living can apply
to a court for financial provision for the children, from then
other party. This provision could, for example, include the payment
of school fees, the payment of a lump sum of money, or even require
the other party to provide housing for the children, until they
grow up. Again, expert legal advice should be sought before making
any such claim.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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