16 June 2014

The Cohabitation Boom (And Bust?)

Jennifer Dickson
Senior associate | UK

Cohabitation has reared its controversial head again this week with the first reading of the Cohabitation Rights Bill, Lord Marks' private members bill. 

Lord Marks is nothing if not persistent – this bill follows hot on the heels of a private members bill on cohabitation he introduced towards the end of last year. And before him, Lord Lester had a go in 2008.  That cohabitation bill, based largely on the Law Commission's report in 2007, made it as far as the committee stage, but then died a death. 

Why is Parliament so reluctant to get its teeth into cohabitation?  More of us than ever before are living together, either as a pre-cursor to marriage or as an alternative to it.  But its popularity with the public does little to whet political appetite for it.  Between 1996 and 2012, the number of people cohabiting in the UKmore than doubled (from 2.9m to 5.9m)1.  Those aged 25-34 are most likely to cohabit.  In 1996, 15% of 25-34 year olds lived together as a couple.  Now that figure is more than 27%, an increase surely not unrelated to the fact that on average we are now holding off until our thirties to get married.  But the cohabitation boom is not isolated to those in their twenties and thirties.  The number of pensioners cohabiting has increased by more than 400% since the mid-1990s. 

This week, the Marriage Foundation predicted that almost half of today's 20 year olds will never marry.  So as more and more people choose to commit to a relationship by living together, but not by marrying, more and more are potentially financially exposed.  And the chances are, they don't realize it. 

At the moment, unless you have made a financial contribution to property or have a child with someone, as a financially dependent cohabitant in England or Wales, you are very unlikely to have any financial come back against your partner if the relationship breaks down.  That is the case whether you have been together for two months or for two decades.

North of the border, things are different.  In Scotland, cohabitants can claim against their ex-partner on the breakdown of their relationship if they can show that they have been economically disadvantaged and/or that their partner has derived economic advantage. Even in the Republic of Ireland, a country historically miles behind others in implementing family law legislation – with no divorce until 1996 and the decriminalization of homosexuality only in 1997 – now offers legal rights for cohabitants.  Under legislation brought in four years ago, one partner can secure relief if he or she can show financial dependence on the other as a result of the relationship (or its breakdown).

Lord Marks' bill had its first reading this week.  It would offer financial recourse to someone who has been living together with a partner for at least two years (a) who has been economically disadvantaged as a result of the contributions (whether financial or otherwise) he/she has made or (b) whose partner has retained a financial benefit as a result of their lives together.

Will it capture Parliament's attention this time?  If recent history is anything to go by, there is a real lack of political appetite for such major reform; even reform intended to protect an ever increasing proportion of the electorate, both young and old. Jennifer Dickson [1] Figures from the Office for National Statistics

Jennifer Dickson Senior associate | London

Category: Blog