This Commons Library briefing paper provides general information about how the law applies to cohabitants, the number of cohabiting couples, and about the Law Commission’s proposals for reform.Jump to full report >>
Unless specified otherwise, this paper deals with the law in England and Wales. There is also a short summary of the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
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”. This is the case no matter how long the couple lived together and even if they had children together.
The total number of cohabiting couples has increased from around 1.5 million in 1996 to around 3.4 million in 2018, an increase of 131%. In 2018, 21% of couples that lived together were cohabiting rather than married or in a civil partnership. Trends in the rate of cohabitation are different for opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
This paper sets out information about how the current law affects cohabiting couples in these areas: property rights; housing; domestic violence; inheritance; social security; pensions; taxation; immigration; birth registration; and parental responsibility.
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 which considered the financial consequences of ending 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 Labour 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. In April 2018, the Government said that it would consider how to proceed in relation to the proposals in the context of any further reforms to the family justice system.
In a separate report, published in 2011, the Law Commission recommended that some unmarried partners should have the right to inherit on each other’s death under the intestacy rules, without having to go to court. This recommendation has not been implemented.
Calls for reform of the law continue to be made, both within and outside of Parliament.
In Scotland, cohabitants may make limited claims against each other either when their relationship breaks down or when a partner dies.
In Northern Ireland, cohabitants have legal protection in some areas. However, they have fewer rights and responsibilities than couples who have married or formed a civil partnership.
Commons Briefing papers SN03372
Authors: Catherine Fairbairn; Wendy Wilson; Steven Kennedy; Djuna Thurley; Antony Seely; Tim Jarrett; Sally Lipscombe; Cassie Barton; Hannah Wilkins