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Common law marriage: is it fact or fiction?

Common law marriage has not existed in the UK since the 17th Century, yet around half the population is under the belief that co-habiting couples have the same legal rights as married couples or those in a civil partnership.

Although married or civil partner couples remain the most common family unit, cohabitation is by far the fastest growing family unit.

A recent social attitudes survey carried out by The National Centre for Social Research found that 46% of the public believe that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage.

Despite publicity and campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of the issues cohabiting couples face, this figure has remained practically the same for the past 14 years.

According to the survey, households with children were even more likely to believe that common law marriage exists.

Anne Barlow, professor of family law and policy at the University of Exeter, stated: “The number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families with dependent children has more than doubled in the last decade. Yet, while people’s attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation have shifted, policy has failed to keep up with the times. The result is often severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable party in the event of separation, such as women who have interrupted their career to raise children.”

A poll commissioned by Resolution back in 2013 revealed that 75% of MPs believed that legal rights for cohabiting couples were unclear and 60% said there was a need for greater legal protection for unmarried couples when they separate. Despite this recognition by MPs, there has been no legislation and no change in the law.

Graeme Fraser, Resolution cohabitation chair commented: It’s time for the government to grasp the nettle and introduce at least some basic legal rights. Otherwise millions of cohabitants continue to be at risk and could be left with a nasty shock if their partner passes away or their relationship comes to an end.”

Whether you are co-habiting, married or in a civil partnership, our expert family law solicitors will be able to offer you the advice and guidance you need for complete peace of mind. Call 01302 320621 or email


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