There has been a steadily growing trend since the 1970s for couples to cohabit either as a precursor to marriage or because they disagree with the institution as overly religious or archaic, and would rather simply live together. Some 70% of couples now live together before tying the knot, with that figure at just 5% in the 1960s. Due to our increasingly secularised society there is no longer the stigma attached to ‘living in sin’. In addition many people view marriage as an out of date or pointless bit of legal documentation, whilst others are put off by the costs involved and so live together for some years first whilst saving up to afford their wedding.
Whatever the reason for couples deciding to live together without being formally wed or tied together through a civil partnership, they ought to be aware that none of the rights afforded to married or civil partnered couples will apply to them, no matter how long they cohabit for. If children are involved this changes slightly however, any of the rights which would come from marriage (for example, maintenance) are only awarded to the child or children involved, not the couple.
An alternative, or even prelude before a marriage or civil partnership, is to draw up a cohabitation agreement. This needs to be a legally binding document in order to be enforceable, including having witnesses to the ‘execution of the deeds’. It will need to be drawn up with the help of solicitors for each party as it could otherwise suffer from annulment due to one party claiming they agreed to it under duress.
Entering such an agreement shouldn’t indicate a lack of trust between partners or damage a relationship but instead be considered a mature and practical response to what could potentially be a legally precarious position, and in some ways simply mirrors the legal realities of marriage. Instead of being viewed as protection of one half of the relationship’s finances or assets, it can be viewed as protective for both parties as a method of making sure that they are looked after in all eventualities.
Typically such agreements will cover what happens in the event of a break up, including property rights and rights to assets. It may also include what will happen if there are any children involved, as long as whatever is stipulated doesn’t over rule existing legal rights. It may also cover how expenses are shared whilst the relationship is intact.
It won’t be able to change certain laws and right afforded only to married or civil partnered couples such as rights to a spouse’s pension upon death, or an avoidance of inheritance tax. Private pension schemes will likely already have a policy for spouses and partners, in which case it would be this that would be followed.
It’s not just couples in a relationship that can benefit from such cohabitation agreements and, indeed, friends sharing property or even family members sharing property may wish to draw up similar agreements in order to safeguard interests. It’s sometimes easier in these situations as there is more pragmatism and less emotion involved, but whether as a loving couple or friends cohabiting to get on the property ladder, it is always worth having a legal and practical point of reference to cover the ‘what if’s’.