Cohabitation and UK Family Law

By Kerry Smith

Published on November 14, 2016

Data released recently by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown that the fastest-growing family structure is cohabitation. More and more couples are choosing to live together before or without getting married, which many legal professionals have taken as evidence of the need for reforms in cohabitation law.

According to the ONS’ data, cohabitation is becoming more prevalent, particularly amongst those who have not previously been married. Nearly one in ten people in the UK are now part of a cohabiting couple, and there are now around 3.2 million such couples in the UK making it the fastest-growing family type in the years since 2004. More and more people are also choosing to have children while cohabiting, rather than taking the more traditional route of marrying first. The percentage of couples who choose to marry, on the other hand, has been on the decline since 2002.

However, the laws surrounding the break-up of such relationships lag behind in many areas. Despite cohabitation now being commonplace, and such relationships often being no less serious or committed than marriages, there are few legal protections and safeguards for cohabitants in the event of the relationship coming to an end. The children of cohabiting couples also have little or no protection if their parents should break up.

The current suite of legal protections and rights for relationship break-ups and the children of separating parents are heavily geared towards marriages and civil partnerships. If one partner chooses to walk away from a cohabitant relationship, on the other hand, then they can legally do so without taking any responsibility at all. The partner left behind along with any children will have few rights and equally few legal routes to pursue things like financial support. This can leave them very vulnerable, especially if the person who chose to walk away had been the key breadwinner of the family.

This matter is complicated by the fact that many people do not appreciate how little protection cohabitants have under the law, and may enter into such relationships in the belief that the arrangement is more secure than it really is. In 2013, a survey showed that 47% of people in Britain believed that there was such a thing as “common law marriage,” giving established cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples. In legal terms, however, common law marriage has no standing at all and even long-term cohabitants will find they have little or nothing in the way of protection at a relationship’s end.

One organisation that has repeatedly called for the rights of cohabiting couples to be expanded is Resolution. Last year, the prominent family law group published its Manifesto for Family Law. In this manifesto, Resolution made a point of promising to continue fighting for the rights of such couples.

Many campaigners and legal professionals now hope that the recent data, showing just how prevalent cohabitation is, will serve to underline the importance of taking action in the eyes of the government.

The Author

Kerry Smith is the Head of Family law at K J Smith Solicitors. For more information, please visit

Article picture: silviarita via Pixabay


Law & Philosophy