Family Law

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Does Marriage, Civil Partnership or Cohabitation discriminate?

View profile for Victoria Poole
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You’d imagine not, in this day and age, but some would argue that discrimination does still exist for certain couples in the UK.

Marriage Equality

Not long ago, it was widely recognised that marriage discriminated against same sex couples

Although civil partnerships were introduced in England and Wales in 2005 to provide gay couples with the same legal rights as heterosexual partners, campaigners continued to fight for marriage equality.  After years of battling for the legalisation of gay marriage, eventually the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act came into force in July 2013 making the marriage of same sex couples lawful in England and Wales, with the first marriages taking place on 29th March 2014.


Civil partnership for all?

Whilst marriage is considered a hugely important institution for many in this country, it’s not felt to be the right option for others.

As it stands currently, same-sex couples do have two options: marriage or civil partnership, whereas mixed-sex couples have only the one option, marriage – a scenario deemed by many to be discriminatory.

In February this year the BBC notably reported on Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keiden, a heterosexual couple who had lost their Court of Appeal battle to have a civil partnership instead of a marriage.

The couple have a seven-year relationship and a 20-month old daughter, want to formalise their relationship within a social institution “which is modern, which is symmetrical and that focuses on equality, which is exactly what a civil partnership is”.

Although the couple intends to appeal to the Supreme Court, the report went on with Dan Quires, QC for the secretary of state for education, who has responsibility for equalities within government, saying it has been decided at this stage not to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, or to either abolish or phase them out. Instead, he said that the government planned to see how extending marriage to same-sex couples impacted on civil partnerships before making a final decision.


If marriage isn’t for you….

…then cohabitation is currently the only alternative.

And it’s increasingly becoming a more popular option, with figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that cohabiting couple families are the fastest growing family type between 1996 and 2016, more than doubling from 1.5 million families to 3.3 million families.

Unfortunately, despite these rising numbers, many people still believe that cohabiting (or living together as an unmarried couple) constitutes a ‘common law marriage’, therefore giving the partners involved the same legal rights as a married couple. But this is arguably the biggest urban myth .

The problem is, as outlined in a House of Commons briefing paper published earlier this year, although cohabitants do have some legal protection in certain areas, cohabitation gives no general legal status to a couple.


The cold hard facts

The briefing paper goes on to outline that crucial differences include:

  1. Unmarried couples have no guaranteed rights to ownership of each other's property on relationship breakdown.
  2. A surviving cohabitant has no automatic right to inherit partner’s estate.
  3. A cohabitant cannot rely upon their former partner's contributions for the purposes of State Pensions.
  4. Cohabiting couples are treated as unconnected individuals for taxation purposes and as such cannot, for example, benefit from various reliefs and exemptions in the taxation system available for spouses and civil partners.

It’s a worrying picture that has the very real potential to leave cohabiting families in an incredibly difficult and compromised position, possibly homeless and/or without any form of income or maintenance.

And where children are involved, separation issues after a split are often about strict legal rights.

With or without children, aside from the heartache and turmoil of a relationship breakdown, resolving the separation matters of a cohabiting couple that have split can become extremely complicated, expensive and devastating for those involved.


What can we do?

The simple solution is to draw up a cohabitation agreement together.

This document enables both of you to clearly set out who owns what and in what proportion, how you would propose to split your property, its contents, personal belongings, savings and other assets in the possible event of your split.

You can also include details of how you plan to support your children together as well as how you’d deal with joint bank accounts, debts and joint purchases e.g. a car.


Whatever you decide, get legal advice

Despite numerous calls for reform from lawyers, judges and campaigning groups for the introduction of laws to protect cohabitants, the government has no immediate plans to implement them any time soon.

At Susan Howarth &Co., we know that marriage might not be for everyone which is why we’re here to give straight answers and provide you both with legal advice so the choices you make are from an informed position and with the knowledge that it’s right for you.

If you’d like some help or advice in relation to cohabitation agreements or understanding the legal differences between cohabiting, civil partnership and marriage, please contact myself or Victoria Poole on 01606 48777.