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Third of cohabitants believed they had same rights as married couples (or did not know)

Only 14 per cent of cohabitants surveyed bought their home as tenants in common

Cohabiting couples want a change in the law and to be afforded the same legal rights as their married counterparts to prevent 'unfair' settlements should their relationship breakdown, a new survey has revealed.

Commissioned by national law firm Mills & Reeve, YouGov surveyed more than 1,000 cohabiting couples across the UK in an effort to highlight the need for legislative change.

Three-quarters (75 per cent) of those surveyed believe unmarried couples who live together should have the same legal rights as married couples.

The study found that more than a third (35 per cent) of those surveyed who are living in cohabiting couples either believed they had the same rights as married couples or did not know. The reality is that cohabiting couples are not afforded the same legal rights as their married counterparts when it comes to property ownership and maintenance payments.

Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in the UK. ONS figures show that between 1996 and 2016, numbers more than doubled from 1.5 million to 3.3 million – accounting for 17.5 per cent of families in the UK and this is set to rise further.

However, the study found there is a staggering lack of awareness and take up of wealth protection measures such as cohabitation agreements which are legally binding. 76 per cent had not heard of cohabitation agreements, and of those who were aware only 10 per cent had such an agreement in place. Only 2 per cent of those surveyed had a cohabitation agreement in place.

And more than a third (35 per cent) of cohabiting couples were unaware that if the property is owned beneficially as joint tenants, the value of the home is typically split 50:50 regardless of how much each contributed. This is particularly alarming given that only half of those surveyed who own their home as joint tenants contributed equal amounts to the deposit for their home. Less than half (42 per cent) made equal contributions to the monthly mortgage payments.

Although owning a property as tenants in common and clearly specifying the percentage each party owns can prevent lengthy and expensive disputes, only 14 per cent of respondents bought their home as tenants in common.
Moreover, almost 60 per cent of respondents were unaware that if they are beneficial joint tenants their share will automatically pass to the surviving cohabitee despite what their will says.

Despite the huge implications of the outcomes of the different property ownership structures, the survey revealed that only a third (33 per cent) were given professional advice on different ownership structures when purchasing their current home.

The Cohabitation Rights Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords in December 2014. However, there has been little progress since and, whilst the Bill has been reintroduced and is due to have a renewed second reading on a date to be announced, there is little realistic prospect of new laws to offer protection to cohabitating couples.

Alison Bull, family law partner at Mills & Reeve, said:

"Under the current law governing cohabitation, it is possible that, at the end of a relationship, one partner who contributed significantly more than the other in terms of a deposit to purchase the property, monthly mortgage repayments and bills, must hand over 50 per cent of the property to the other party.

"Similarly, it is also plausible that one partner, whose name is not on the legal title but who has made substantial contributions both financial and non-financial including staying at home to bring up the children, could and does end up with nothing.

"The law surrounding cohabitation can result in terribly unfair results and cases are often complex, lengthy and expensive. Also, the 'loser' can also end up paying the other party's costs.

"There are more and more people living together and choosing not to get married or enter into civil partnerships. Society is changing and the legal system needs to catch up. What we have is a set of archaic laws that do not protect cohabiting couples –  and there is clearly demand for change."