Tied Up in Knots? Mary Kaye Looks at the Complex Rules and Regulations of Modern Co-Habitation

The Birmingham Post (England), October 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

Tied Up in Knots? Mary Kaye Looks at the Complex Rules and Regulations of Modern Co-Habitation


Byline: Mary Kaye

Unfortunately for optimists, the falling divorce rate is not testament to the success of marriage, nor is it a consequence of people weathering the current economic climate together. It simply mirrors the continuing decline in the popularity of marriage; fewer marriages means fewer divorces.

Co-habitation is increasingly seen as an alternative to marriage and more people at every stage of life are choosing to cohabit.

In 1992, the Office of National Statistics estimated that 2.7 million adults were co-habiting, rising to around 4.5 million in 2007. The divorce rate may continue to fall as those who enter into marriage are prepared to enter into a long-term commitment, whereas cohabitees may regard their relationship as more temporary.

People who choose to marry are prepared for long-term commitment, although many reading this would not agree, including no doubt my own son and his 'life partner'.

Looking back 40 years, people married almost as a matter of course, partly due to social pressure and partly because, unlike today, you had to leave home to have sex. To have children outside wedlock was frowned upon; it was almost unthinkable in some religious and cultural backgrounds and still is for many.

Social change and sexual freedom has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of co-habiting couples. Since the Divorce Law Reform Bill in 1969 the number of marriages has halved, the number of divorces has doubled and birth outside marriage is up fourfold.

The present system available to cohabiting couples if their relationship breaks down is unsatisfactory. It is nonsensical that unmarried parties should not have the means to affect a smooth dissolution of their relationship.

There is currently no cohesive law, just an unsatisfactory hodge-podge of laws and clogged-up courts. Modern life has changed beyond recognition over the last 50 years and family law in England and Wales is totally out of touch.

Successive governments have failed to enact laws to reflect this change, with cost the most probable reason we have not brought our law into line with Scotland, which changed its law in 2006. One of the great fallacies that exists amongst co-habiting couples is the idea of the 'common-law wife' - there is no such thing. The current law does not just ignore the fact that people live together, it even fails to recognise this modern social phenomenon exists.

What should co-habiting couples do? The term co-habitation normally refers to heterosexual couples who live together in a domestic, usually sexual (though sex is not obligatory) situation; same-sex couples are now covered by the Civil Partnership Act of 2004.

Despite the increase in couples cohabiting, few understand the need to safeguard their position, or take steps to do so, either at the outset or during their co-habitation. It is important, therefore, that couples consider before co-habiting how their finances are to be worked out and what would happen if the relationship breaks down. …

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