The rights of cohabiting partners – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Women and Equalities Committee

Related inquiry: The Rights of Cohabiting Partners

Date Published: 4 August 2022

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Cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in England and Wales. In 2021 there were around 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK compared with 1.5 million in 1996.

Whereas married couples and civil partners in England and Wales have certain legal rights and responsibilities upon divorce or death, cohabitants receive inferior protections. Notwithstanding the legal reality, many people believe in the so-called ‘common law marriage myth’, which is the erroneous belief that after a certain amount of time of living together, the law treats cohabitants as if they were married. On family breakdown, cohabitants must rely on complex property law and trusts principles. Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989 is outdated, mostly benefits the children of wealthy parents and is in need of reform. On death, cohabitants do not automatically inherit from their partner.

The lack of legal protection on family breakdown means that women, including women from an ethnic minority background and those who have had a religious-only wedding, can suffer relationship-generated disadvantage. It is time the law adapted to the social reality of modern relationships while still recognising the social and religious status of marriage. The Government should legislate for an opt-out cohabitation scheme as proposed by the Law Commission. The Ministry of Justice should commission a refresh review of the recommendations to see if they need updating. We also support the Law Commission’s 2011 proposals concerning intestacy and family provision claims for cohabiting partners. We call on the Government to implement those proposals.

The Government should also publish clear guidelines on how pension schemes should treat surviving cohabitants when claiming a survivor’s pension. We also recommend that Ministers review the inheritance tax regime so it is the same for cohabiting partners as it is for married couples and civil partners. Finally, the Government should launch a public awareness campaign to inform people of the legal distinctions between getting married, forming a civil partnership and living together as cohabiting partners.