Rights for cohabiting couples: how far will the government dare to go? By guest blogger Isabel Thornton
I have a personal interest in the Law Commission’s proposals to revamp the law for cohabiting couples, which would give cohabitees the same rights on death as married couples. As a cohabitee of almost six years, who has only recently agreed to make an honest man of her partner, would I be better off “living over the brush” – or is marriage a safer place to be?
The answer is clear. As the law currently stands, unmarried partners get nothing if their partner dies without making a will. A lot of people find this very surprising. What is even more surprising is that the length of the relationship or the existence of children makes no difference. Surely if you have been together over 20 years and have five children together, you would be entitled to something? I am afraid not. If one partner dies and the surviving partner wants to challenge the lack of provision for them, they face protracted and costly litigation under the Inheritance Provision for Family and Dependents Act 1975. There is no guarantee of success.
Under the new proposals, couples who live together for more than five years or who have children together will be treated as if they are married, if one of them dies without making a will.
However if you have only been together for between two to five years, the surviving partner would get just half of what a married spouse would get in the same circumstances.
I have some questions:
- Do the proposals go far enough? There is little doubt that they are a step in the right direction. However it remains to be seen if our Government is brave enough to implement changes to the law that, to some, may appear to undermine the sanctity of marriage. Let’s not forget its decision to shy away from the proposed reform to the law for unmarried couples in the event of relationship breakdown.
- For how much longer can the changing nature of relationships within our society be ignored? I believe that with increasing numbers of us choosing to cohabit either before marriage or instead of marriage, the law requires reform and fairly rapidly.
The current consultation closes on 28 February 2010 and further details of the proposals can be found on the Law Commission’s website.
By the way, it can also be argued that the existing law for married couples is deficient. Contrary to popular belief, spouses do not automatically inherit all of their deceased spouse’s estate. For example, if the estate of the deceased spouse exceeds £250,000, the spouse will only receive the first £250,000, the deceased’s personal items and a right to an income from half of whatever is left. The children will receive the remainder. This can often lead to inequitable and unfair results for the surviving spouse – and can also result in financial hardship at what is already a very difficult time. This, however, is another topic for another day.
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Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner in Stowe Family Law, which has offices in Yorkshire, Cheshire and London. With more than 30 years’ experience handling divorce cases and family law proceedings she is regarded as one of the most formidable and sought after divorce lawyers in the UK. In 2012, Marilyn became one of the first solicitors to qualify as a family law arbitrator.
All persons mentioned in the scenarios are fictitious: details have been deliberately changed in order to protect identities and other confidential circumstances of my clients. All advice and information on this blog including posts written by guest authors, is given only as a general guide to the operation of the law on the date of publication. Readers must place no reliance whatsoever on the content of this blog and must always obtain their own legal advice. Marilyn Stowe, Stowe Family Law LLP and guest authors accept no liability whatsoever arising as a result of reliance upon its content.
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