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Number of cohabitating couples with dependent children increases by a third in last ten years

New research indicates a shift in social attitudes to cohabitation

For the first time ever, the percentage of cohabiting couples with children equals that of married couples with children, according to a new academic report published to coincide with The Co-operative's move into family law services.

The report, which is based on analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics and online consumer research involving 2,064 adults, points to a significant increase (34 per cent) in the number of cohabiting couples with dependent children in the ten years to 2011. According to the report, between 2001 and 2011, the total number of cohabiting families with dependent children increased by 292,000, whilst married couples with dependent children fell by 319,000. This, according to the report, suggests that increasingly, cohabitation is no longer seen as a 'trial run' before marriage and children, but as a replacement for marriage for both long-term relationships and the raising of children.

The research also highlights the extent to which cohabiting couples are seen as a socially acceptable family environment for children, with over half (52 per cent) of people believing that marriage is not important providing the parents are in a committed relationship. Only 27 per cent maintain the more traditional view that couples should be married before having children.

The result of this shift in attitude could account for the fact that in 2011, 38 per cent of cohabiting couples were parents – the same percentage as married couples with children – and 31 per cent of live births in 2010 were to women cohabiting with but not married to their partner, up from 25 per cent in 2001. 

However, despite the increasing social legitimacy, the report acknowledges that cohabiting couple families continue to be less stable than married couple families. With a higher proportion of all family breakdowns involving young children from unmarried parents, the research reveals the potential for future issues with confusion over the legal rights of cohabiting couples compared to married couples. Of those questioned, over a quarter (26 per cent) of adults believe that cohabiting couples have the same rights as married couples when it comes to child custody, 22 per cent when it comes to property and 21 per cent when it comes to finances.

Commenting on the findings, Christina Blacklaws, Director of Family Law at The Co-operative Legal Services, said: 

"This report makes it clear that cohabitation is on the rise. However, whilst this is now increasingly seen as a socially accepted trend, the law has not kept up and clearly there is confusion about the rights of cohabiting families. Although many people still believe they have rights as common law spouses, there is no such status in law. As a result, some cohabiting families may find themselves facing real difficulties should they split up, particularly when there are children involved.

"It is clear that this area of family law is in urgent need of an overhaul. However, in the meantime, people need to think carefully about how they protect themselves and their families – preferably by reaching and signing agreements about what would happen if you did split up. This could save a huge amount of cost and heartache if the worst happens."

Other findings include:

The analysis, commissioned by The Co-operative Legal Services, was conducted by academic experts Dr Esmée Hanna and Dr David Grainger, who were both part of the Leeds University Timescapes longitudinal study which explored how personal and family relationships develop and change over time. 

Dr Hanna and Dr Grainger commented:

"Part of the decline in marriage in recent years can perhaps be explained by the increase in cohabitation as a family format, with ever more couples choosing to live together. And, as the number of cohabiting couples increases, they are increasingly seen as a socially legitimate family environment for child bearing. As our research showed, attitudes have also changed, with only 27% of people believing people should be married before having children, whilst over half thought that a committed relationship was the most important thing."