House of Commons Library

"Common law marriage" and cohabitation

Published Thursday, June 14, 2018

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.

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This briefing paper provides general information about the number of cohabiting couples; how the law applies to cohabitants; the Law Commission’s proposals for reform; and about other calls for reform.

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

No legal status for common law marriage

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.

Number of cohabiting couples

The Office for National Statistics has published annual data on the composition of families and households living in the UK since 1996. During this period, the number of opposite sex and same sex cohabiting couple families has increased, but trends differ between opposite sex and same sex couple families.

How does the law treat cohabiting 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.

Cohabitation agreements

Some cohabitants enter into a cohabitation agreement which can act as encouragement to consider what they would want to happen if the relationship ends.

Law Commission proposals for reform

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

Calls for reform of the law continue to be made, both within and outside of Parliament.

Scotland

In Scotland, cohabitants may make limited claims against each other either when their relationship breaks down or when a partner dies.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, cohabitants have legal protection in some areas.  However, they have significantly fewer rights and responsibilities than couples who have married or formed a civil partnership.

 

Commons Briefing papers SN03372

Authors: Catherine Fairbairn; Oliver Hawkins; Wendy Wilson; Steven Kennedy; Djuna Thurley; Antony Seely; Tim Jarrett; Sally Lipscombe; Melanie Gower

Topics: Cohabitation, Family law

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