"Common law marriage" and cohabitation

Published 17 December 2014

This note provides general information about the number of cohabiting couples, how the law applies to cohabitants, and about the Law Commission’s proposals for reform.

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Although cohabitants do have some legal protection in several areas, cohabitation gives no general legal status to a couple, unlike marriage and civil partnership from which many legal rights and responsibilities flow. Many people are unaware that there is no specific legal status for what is often referred to as a “common law marriage”. The Ministry of Justice has funded two voluntary sector partners to manage a campaign to make cohabitants more aware of their legal status and provide them with practical advice on how they can protect themselves and their families, should they wish to do so. Some cohabitants enter into a cohabitation agreement which can act as encouragement to consider what they would want to happen if the relationship ends.

In July 2007, following consultation, the Law Commission published a report, Cohabitation: the financial consequences of relationship breakdown, which considered the financial consequences of the ending of cohabiting relationships. The Law Commission recommended the introduction of a new statutory scheme of financial relief on separation based on the contributions made to the relationship by the parties. The scheme would be available to eligible cohabiting couples. Couples who have had a child together or who have lived together for a minimum period would be eligible. Couples would be able to opt out of the scheme by a written agreement to that effect.

In March 2008, the previous Government announced that it would be taking no action to implement the Law Commission’s recommendations until research on the cost and effectiveness of a similar scheme recently implemented in Scotland could be studied. On 6 September 2011, Jonathan Djanogly, then a junior Justice Minister, announced that, having carefully considered the Law Commission’s recommendations, together with the outcomes of research on the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006, the Government did not intend to reform the law relating to cohabitation in this Parliamentary term.

This note provides general information about the number of cohabiting couples, how the law applies to cohabitants, and about the Law Commission’s proposals for reform.

Unless specified otherwise, this note deals generally with the law in England and Wales. There is also a short summary of the position in Scotland.

Commons Briefing papers SN03372

Author: Catherine Fairbairn

Topics: Cohabitation, Family law

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