Statistics tell us that the number of cohabiting couples has grown by nearly 30% in the last 10 years. With that in mind, it’s inevitable that there is much discussion about cohabitants’ rights, especially in the realm of financial protection.
Baroness Deech, speaking at the end of 2014 had very firm views on the subject. She said: “I remain of the view that it is a denial of freedom to turn cohabitation into marriage by statute. Research into the growth of cohabitation has shown quite clearly that it is not a happy situation for children because of the very high breakdown rates.”
If you break that statement down, it does seem contradictory. On one hand, she is asserting that couples should have the freedom to cohabit and shouldn’t be forced to marry. At the same time, that cohabitation is bad for kids and that therefore couples shouldn’t cohabit, at least if they have kids.
As far as property rights go, there have been suggestions that cohabitees should be offered limited protection, if a split happens, to those who might otherwise suffer from severe financial hardship after a long period of cohabitation. Exactly who should be protected and by how much varies depending on the proposal but it boils down to fairness. No proposal suggests one partner should acquire rights on the other’s property from the minute they start cohabiting.
The situation that is often cited is when a woman lives with her partner in his home, and stays at home to bring up the family. Then, after a long relationship, they split and she is left with nothing. It’s obviously unfair to that woman to be left empty handed while her partner retains his property and all his assets, especially if his earning level is a reflection of the fact that he could pursue his career while she stayed at home.
The question of children being affected adversely by cohabitation as opposed to marriage is debatable. It’s really an argument perpetuated by those who think all couples should get married. And, of course, for some couples marriage isn’t the answer.
So the question remains, will giving property rights to cohabitees make couples more inclined to cohabit rather than get married? The answer is likely no. Couples don’t enter a relationship already thinking about what will happen if it breaks down. This is reflected by the fact that relatively few couples draw up prenuptial agreements. If anything, introduction of property rights might put the more affluent partner off cohabitation. Account also needs to be taken that many couples think they already have property rights under the concept of ‘common law marriage’ which does not in fact exist in law.
The idea of property rights for cohabitees isn’t likely to become law anytime soon, especially as the latest attempt was through Private Member’s Bill. But it’s likely that it’s time will come. It’s just a matter of when.