The number of couples getting married is at a record low. Sarah Evans, Partner in Coodes Solicitors’ Family team comments on the legal issues for those who choose to live together.
According to figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the number of heterosexual couples choosing to marry has never been lower. In 2017, 235, 910 opposite-sex marriages were registered – a decrease of 2.8 percent compared with the previous year.
The number of men and women choosing to marry each other has nearly halved in the last four decades, with a 45 percent reduction in marriages registered since 1972. And if we do get married, most of us are leaving it later. The average age at which people marry has risen to 38 for men and 35 for women.
Figures released last year by the ONS showed that the number of families with cohabiting couples is growing faster than traditional family units with married parents. So, more couples are choosing to live together without taking the step of formalising their relationship.
From a legal perspective, does this really matter? What difference does it make if you don’t get married?
The myth of common law marriage
Despite the fact that it is now very normal for couples to live together without getting married, the law does not recognise these relationships. Many people still believe they automatically have legal rights if they live with a partner but, in fact, ‘common law marriage’ is a myth that has no basis in law. For example, it can very difficult to establish your rights to a property if you separate from your partner. Additionally, cohabiting fathers may not necessarily have the same automatic rights to parental responsibility when it comes to their children.
A marriage is a legal contract. When you marry or have a civil partnership, you access certain rights and sign up to responsibilities. It gives you important legal protection should the relationship break down in future or if your spouse dies.
Protecting yourself if you choose not to marry
If you choose not to marry your partner, it is important to understand where you stand legally. You can then take steps to give yourself some protection. This includes making a Will and ensuring it stays up to date as your circumstances change, for example if you buy a house or have children. It is also sensible to draw up a living together or cohabitation agreement, which records what you each own and how it should be shared. A declaration of trust can also be a useful way of setting out your ownership of a property.
Put simply, however long you live together, you will not automatically gain legal rights. If you choose to cohabit without getting married, it is important to be proactive and take steps to protect yourself.
For more information on divorce or any family legal matters, please contact the Family team: Family@coodes.co.uk