“Urgent” reforms are needed to current laws which leave cohabiting couples receiving “inferior protections” despite a shift in social norms, a cross-party group of MPs has suggested.
The Commons Women and Equalities Committee warned that many people believe in the “so-called common-law marriage myth”, often leaving women vulnerable to a “lack of legal protection on family breakdown” or the death of a partner.
The MPs’ report, entitled The Rights Of Cohabiting Partners, noted that cohabitation “is the fastest growing family type” in England and Wales, adding: “In 2021 there were around 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK compared with 1.5 million in 1996.”
It added: “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.”
The report called on the Government to “legislate for an opt-out cohabitation scheme as proposed by the Law Commission”, adding: “It is time the law adapted to the social reality of modern relationships while still recognising the social and religious status of marriage.”
The committee also backed the Law Commission’s 2011 proposals “concerning intestacy (not making a will before death) and family provision claims for cohabiting partners”.
Current law relating to cohabitants, the report noted, “can be costly, complicated and unfair”, as it called for an awareness campaign on the “legal distinctions”.
It added: “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.”
Conservative chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Committee Caroline Nokes said: “It is high time that the Government recognised this shift in social norms, which has been taking place for well over 30 years.
“The law has been left decades behind as far as cohabitation is concerned, and this is leaving financially vulnerable individuals in precarious situations upon relationship breakdown or the death of a partner.
“It is completely unfair that these individuals have inferior protections to their married or civilly partnered peers. Deciding not to marry is a valid choice, and not one which should be penalised in law.
“Not only must the Government urgently make legal reforms which would protect those individuals, including an opt-out cohabitation scheme, it must make the public aware that ‘common-law marriage’ is a myth.
“Far too many people are left high and dry upon relationship breakdown, relying on a common belief that turns out to be completely false.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We will carefully consider these recommendations and respond in due course.”