With cohabitation continuing in popularity and marriage rates falling among younger people, we take a look at marriage versus cohabitation.

The 2021 census carried out by the Office for National Statistics revealed that 24.3% of people are cohabiting outside of marriage or civil partnership. Those who are married or in a civil partnership account for 46.9% of the population.

The age range with the largest drop in marriage rates is the 25-35 group, with 1.2 million more unmarried in 2021 compared to the figures from ten years earlier.

Rights for married couples

Marriage can be beneficial for individuals who are in a weaker financial position than their spouse. Marriage is a financial commitment for life and should a couple divorce, they will only be released from this obligation when a financial order is made by the courts.

When looking at what to include in a financial order, the usual starting point for the courts is to divide assets equally between the parties. However, if one partner has less income or less ability to earn a living than the other, this can be taken into account.

For example, if one party gave up their career to raise children, the court can compensate their lower earning capacity by awarding them a larger share of the matrimonial assets.

When dealing with financial matters on divorce, the court has the power to take a full range of assets into account, including property, investments, inheritances and pensions. When dealing with a divorce, it will prioritise the interests of any children there may be. This means that the person with the main day to day care of children may stay in the family home.

Rights for unmarried couples

Unmarried individuals have far fewer rights. There is no legal concept of common law marriage and unless someone can establish legal or beneficial ownership of an asset, they are unlikely to be able to claim it on separation.

This means that an unmarried individual may have to leave a shared home if their name is not on the title deeds and they do not have a claim to it. If they can show that they made financial contributions on the understanding that they would have a share of the property, then they may have a valid claim, but this can be difficult to prove.

By way of example, if they paid for renovations or paid the household bills so that their partner could pay the mortgage, then they may be able to establish that they are entitled to a share of the property. It is essential to speak to a legal expert about this type of claim, known as a Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act or TOLATA claim, as it is not a straightforward area of law.

Protecting your position as an unmarried individual

If you are cohabiting, you can take steps to protect your position by putting a cohabitation agreement in place. This is an agreement that sets out how you intend to deal with issues in the future, including in the even that you separate.

You can choose what to include in a cohabitation agreement. Issues that are commonly dealt with include:

  • What will happen to a shared home
  • What will happen to other property either of you may own
  • How bills and other outgoings will be shared
  • How savings and investments will be dealt with
  • What will happen to your pension
  • Financial provision for children
  • Who will keep any pets you have

Having a well-drafted cohabitation agreement in place can help you avoid misunderstandings and disagreements. It can also give both parties a level of reassurance for the future, particularly if one of them stops working to look after children.


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