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Family Law Blog

Comment on divorce & family law 

Unmarried couples rights - or wrongs?

There has been a fair bit of chatter in the last week about the rights of unmarried couples. If you want to catch up on what’s been said on the issue, try checking out this BBC round-up.

It all kicked off (again) when Sir Nicholas Wall, President of the Family Division of the High Court – effectively the highest ranking family law judge in the country – said estranged partners should have claim on property and assets accumulated during a partnership even if they are not married. Effectively, this would give them one of the major rights that married couples enjoy after walking down the aisle.

Generally speaking I would agree, and I have said this before. In this day and age, the fact is that it is not necessarily the norm for couples to get married. Living together, whether it is as a trial before committing to each other for life, or just as a general lifestyle choice, is commonplace. The law should recognise this and reflect it in attitudes dealing with couples who have been together for some time but never got married.

There are many complexities around this. It would be catastrophic if every estranged partner who had been co-habiting with a former lover for a short length of time was able to use the courts to make a claim for a share of possessions. The family courts are stretched enough. There would need to be some sort of guidance or formalisation of the living together process. At least it should place more gravitas on living together agreements. However, would formalising arrangements in this way not lead some to protest that it was as “bad/good” as getting married?

Pre-election, David Cameron had said he was going to look at this but it seems to have faded into the background., perhaps because there were suggestions that effectively rewarding couples for not getting married did not sit well with the more traditional Tory family values. I don’t know.

It is time to look at the situation again, at least to draw a line under the comments on the issue which seem to come around now every couple of months but not move the debate forward. Is there going to be a change or isn’t there?

However, there was a line in a Daily Telegraph editorial on the issue that caught my eye and got me thinking about an opposite point of view. Speaking of couples who shun marriage and the legal responsibilities it brings, it raised the issue: “Since they have rejected the protection offered by marriage, why should they then rush to law when the relationship ends?” Effectively, if you decided not to marry and shun the legal responsibilities that go with it in terms of shared assets, liabilities etc, why should the law be changed to suit them if things don’t work out the way they want? Food for thought.

Andrew Woolley
Family Solicitor


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