Legal reforms to address the common law marriage myth should remain a priority for government

wedding rings

Professor Rebecca Probert, from the University of Exeter Law School, analysed information about 286 register office weddings celebrated between 1837 and 1901

Legal reforms to address false beliefs among cohabiting couples that they have the same rights as those who are married must remain a priority for government, a leading expert has warned.

Social security rules and even everyday administrative tasks such as buying joint car insurance continue to confirm the myth.

Those who live together have few of the legal rights available to those who have married, particularly when relationships break down or one partner dies. Regulation of informal cohabitation is fragmented and inconsistent and ignores the complexities of relationships.

Speaking at a recent family law conference Professor Anne Barlow, who has led major studies into the extent of common law marriage myths in England and Wales, called for changes to the law.

Professor Barlow said: “The reality in the UK is that love and marriage no longer go together like a horse and carriage. The law remains complex and confusing for cohabitants where financial provision is not governed by family law. Extending civil partnerships to different-sex couples is very welcome, but it does not address the myths which exist about common law marriage and it is not a universal answer for all cohabitants. We estimate take-up will be low among heterosexual couples.

“A functional approach to cohabitation law is still needed if family law is to protect the vulnerable. Reform should be a priority for government given the gendered nature of family life and false assumptions about autonomy, at least where there are children of the relationship.”

Cohabitants are a fast-growing family type in the UK with some 3.6 million couples living in informal relationships in England and Wales, an increase of 23 per cent over the last decade. Of these, 1.3 million have dependent children. Cohabitation is also increasingly common among older age groups.

Professor Barlow has previously found widespread belief that living together gives couples the same rights to those who are married continues. The government has rejected suggestions from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee and the Law Commission to make reforms.

Professor Barlow said: “We know cohabiting couples are just as likely as married couples to believe in common law marriage, and those with children are much more likely to do so. People are often unaware of their legal situation until it is too late, causing financial hardship.

“The complex use of trust law to resolve family law disputes remains problematic and means unmarried parents have little legal means to address finances when relationships break down.

“Social attitude surveys show people believe the presence of children rather than marriage alone should guide financial provision on separation.”