Changing relationships – legal advice on shifting trends in marriage and cohabiting

PUBLISHED: 11:44 24 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:44 24 February 2014

The breakdown of unmarried relationships has risen

The breakdown of unmarried relationships has risen


Ruth Abrams, senior associate at SA Law in St Albans and specialist in relationship disputes, looks at how changing trends have seen divorce rates fall while cohabiting breakdowns climb

The Marriage Foundation reported recently that despite accounting for only one in five parents, unmarried couples were set to overtake married couples as the main source of family breakdown by the end of last year.

Data issued by the Office of National Statistics shows that cohabiting couples make up 19 per cent of parents but in 2010 accounted for 48 per cent of family breakdowns. Based on current trends, this percentage is expected to increase to 50 per cent by the end of this year. If the predictions are right, this will be the first time in UK history that more unmarried couples have split up than those who have walked down the aisle.

Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation, who wrote the report said, ‘This marks a significant tipping point for society today. We hear so often that a rising rate of divorce is the cause of growing family instability, but these statistics prove how far that is from being the case. Divorce rates have actually been falling since 2004’.


Marriage vs cohabitation.

It is surprising how many people choose not to marry but to cohabit, given the legal differences between the two scenarios. One might reasonably argue that in many cases it is more advantageous to be married. For example, those who stay at home to be with children, perhaps giving up their careers and relying on support from their partner, will be severely prejudiced in the context of a breakdown of the relationship if they are not married.

While a husband or wife can claim capital and maintenance from an ex partner in this situation, if you have not been married you have no claim to capital or maintenance for yourself at all, regardless of how long you have been together. Claims can only be made in respect of children, or where there is joint property where a party has made a direct financial contribution to the acquisition of the property.


Paternal responsibility.

Another example would be in relation to a father’s parental responsibility for his child. Married fathers will automatically have parental responsibility, giving them equal input into important decisions surrounding the child’s upbringing such as those concerning their education, health and religion.

An unmarried father to a child born today would have parental responsibility only if his name was put on the birth certificate as the father or if parental responsibility was granted by agreement or court order.


Protect your assets.

So what can cohabiting couples do to preserve and regulate their positions in the event of a relationship breakdown? One answer is to enter into a cohabitation agreement. This can cover all aspects of financial provision if things don’t work out (rather like a prenuptial agreement) and address the question of parental responsibility and even contact and residence arrangements for the children.

Although it will not be enforceable in the family courts, it may be persuasive and help set out the parameters of expectation so that both parties know where they are.

Alternatively, and if the report from the Marriage Foundation is correct, a better option may simply be to get married and statistically lessen your chances of family breakdown.

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