Resolution’s Cohabitation Awareness Week begins today and runs all week. On the first day of the campaign we asked the team at Resolution some key questions about the campaign and why it is so important.
What is the key message behind Resolution’s Cohabitation Week campaign?
Our message is very simple: we think the law should be changed to give millions of cohabiting couples in England and Wales some legal protection if they separate. Until then, we want people living together to be aware of their lack of rights, and to take steps to protect themselves. We want the week to raise public awareness across the country among those most affected.
What are the top legal issues cohabiting people have?
We surveyed our members about this – the main one that comes back time and time again is what happens to the home they’ve both been living in. Sadly, many think because they’ve been living together for many years, that means they automatically have a right to a share of the property, but the reality is incredibly complicated and often people lose out, particularly if they have not already acquired property rights when the home was purchased.
What is the one thing you think cohabiting couples in England and Wales would be surprised to hear about their legal position?
Time and time again surveys show a significant proportion of cohabiting couples believe in this myth of the ‘common-law marriage’ – that you effectively have the same rights as married couples if you’ve lived together for a certain period of time. The message has become mixed up because of various news stories about potential reform that has never happened, or the experience in other countries. There is no such thing though, and if we can achieve one thing through this campaign, I’d love us to put that myth to bed for good!
Couples living together in England and Wales do not have the same legal rights as a married couple or civil partners. Is Resolution calling for a change to the law?
Yes, absolutely. We don’t advocate cohabiting couples having exactly the same rights as married couples – there are various political and social arguments against that. But that shouldn’t be a barrier to extending some legal protections to people who’ve lived together, many of whom do so, to all intents and purposes, as if they’re a married couple, sharing financial responsibilities, having children together etc. It’s not just Resolution either – we’ve had support for our campaign from Relate, the Law Society, academics and politicians. Momentum is building and we hope the government will take notice.
With a growing number of people choosing to live together outside of marriage there is a growing trend towards cohabitation, but there seems to be no greater understanding among the general public as to their legal rights. What can be done about this?
We hope our awareness campaign will be a good start! We’re lucky at Resolution to have so many members who join in these campaigns and help promote these issues at a local level, and we want to support that as much as possible. We also think there’s a role for other advice providers – such as mortgage advisers and conveyancers, to make people aware of the legal situation when they buy a property.
So, more people are cohabiting. Family lawyers must be busier than ever preparing living together agreements, right?
Actually, our survey ahead of this week shows the majority of our members aren’t doing this work very often. Probably because people aren’t aware of their rights and therefore don’t see the need to protect themselves. What we also know from our survey is that our members regularly see cohabitants who’ve recently separated, and they’re unable to help them because of the current legal situation. It’s pretty frustrating for us, and potentially devastating for those affected, and one of the big reasons the law needs to change. It can’t be right that a mother – whose children have grown up and who looked after the household for nearly 20 years – receives no financial redress and is left vulnerable, simply because the father would not marry her.
If couples find themselves in the positon where their relationship has broken down and they cannot agree on issues involving property and/or children, what should they do? What are their options?
Prevention is always better than cure, so we’d encourage people to get a legal cohabitation agreement in place when they decide they’re in the relationship for the long haul, and remember also to have a declaration of trust prepared whenever a property is being acquired by the unmarried couple. But failing that, if you do get to a point where you’re separating and you can’t agree, get some advice early and quickly, preferably from a Resolution member. As a starting point, there’s lots of free information available on our website, and on other sites like Money Advice Service. Dispute resolution options aimed at fairness, including mediation, can help produce an outcome which is more acceptable to all the family members involved, and Resolution members are perfectly placed to provide these bespoke services.
So, is the message one of prevention? And that with the right legal document, properly prepared by an expert, you can protect your position in the event that your relationship doesn’t work out long-term?
Absolutely. You can ask a Resolution member to draw up a cohabitation agreement (also known as a living together agreement), which sets out what would happen to any property, money and possessions if you split up. A cohabitation agreement can cover, for example, issues such as who pays which bills, the operation of joint bank accounts, arrangements for support of a partner who gives up work to have children, arrangements for children in the event that the relationship breaks down, life insurance, gifts made to the couple, credit cards, cars, credit agreements and pretty much anything else which affects the financial and other dealings between a couple. These agreements can be negotiated using collaborative law so that the couple don’t feel that they are working against each other at the time that they are recognising their commitment towards each other. It’s a very powerful message that family lawyers can support couples who wish to reach agreements in an autonomous way to take control of their futures.
Each day throughout Cohabitation Awareness Week 2017, we’ll be releasing blogs, information sheets and resources to help raise awareness of cohabitees’ rights and what would happen in the event of a separation.