This first appeared in the Wigan Observer on June 17th 2014
Q: Recent figures suggest nearly half of today’s 20 year olds will not get married. Why are more people deciding not to get married and what are the implications?
A: On the 11th June the Office for National Statistics issued their latest set of marriage statistics. The information contained a few headline-grabbing snippets including the fact that there was a 5.3% increase in the number of marriages between 2011 and 2012, with a total of 262,240 people ‘tying the knot’.
More surprising perhaps was the jump in couples between the ages of 65 to 69 years which increased for men and women by 25% and 21% respectively, which could be part of a general trend perhaps inspired by the Royal Wedding of 2011, or simply couples being able to better afford such a union as the country started to climb out of recession?
But what does all this mean? Like the famous saying goes, ‘There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics’ and as with any statistics they only mean something when put into context.
The increases referred to are only annual ones and have to be set against the fact total marriages were at their historical low just a few years ago. The total number of marriages in the UK peaked in 1940 just at the outbreak of the 2nd World War with over 450,000 taking place, and although there were further increases perhaps due to population growth through the 1950s and 1960s, there has in fact been a steady decrease in marriage and increase in divorce since the early 1970s when the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into force.
Although there may be a number of different reasons for the changes, what does seem clear is that attitudes to marriage have changed dramatically during the second half of the last century, perhaps not always for the better, matched with a greater acceptance of couples living together without marriage.
The decline in marriage has almost inevitably meant numbers of cohabitating couples in the UK has doubled from the 1990s, with the figure now standing at nearly three million couples. Many couples many decide not to get married due to a number of reasons such as the financial costs, a fear of divorce if they did (42% do, although 60% of marriages survive the 20th anniversary) or perhaps other aspects of a life together are more important first considerations, such as starting a family or saving up to buy a home.
Although cohabitation is becoming more popular, there are still many misconceptions that couples who live together have the same rights as married couples. Three in 10 unmarried couples believe that if they live with their partner and even go on to have children with them, they’re protected by the notion of ‘common law’ – but there’s no such thing as a ‘common law’ husband or wife. In the UK, unmarried couples have far less rights regarding property and other assets, including pensions, compared to couples who are either married or in a civil partnership, and there are many differences between the rights of married and unmarried partners which couples need to be aware of.
Unfortunately the law has failed to keep track of the societal changes of the last 50 years and remains broadly unchanged in relation to couples that live together without a formal union.
Although the Law Commission has recently set out proposals relating to division of matrimonial property following separation, including recognition of pre-nuptial agreements, following their final report of 2007 to Parliament dealing with co-habitation, the current government decided not to commit time to the proposals and they remain just that.
Only time will tell whether there is any appetite for real change after the next election with the concerned words of a law commissioner stating plainly that: “We hope that implementation will not be delayed beyond the early days of the next Parliament, in view of the hardship and injustice caused by the current law. The prevalence of cohabitation, and of the birth of children to couples who live together, means that the need for reform of the law can only become more pressing over time.”
For the time being, if a cohabiting couple’s relationship was to break down, resolving their financial circumstances can be a complex and costly issue. With the absence of legal aid for most situations it seems that too many are having to ‘put up with it’ rather than get matters sorted out properly. This may in time mean more having to claim benefits than would otherwise be necessary.
For anyone considering living together, I would suggest considering getting some legal advice as to your likely rights and obligations. Although there may be relatively small costs, it may well be worth it in the long term.
Media information: Lianne Tracey and Chloe Kendall
Stephensons Solicitors LLP
Tel: 01942 774225 or 01942 774054