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Almost half of the public believe that common law marriage exists

Figures underline why a change in the law is so desperately needed: Resolution

Almost half of people in England and Wales mistakenly believe that unmarried couples who live together have a common law marriage and enjoy the same rights as couples that are legally married.

The first findings from this year's British Social Attitudes Survey, carried out by The National Centre for Social Research, reveal that 46 per cent of the public are under the impression that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage. The figure has remained largely unchanged over the last fourteen years (47 per cent in 2005) despite a significant increase in the number of cohabiting couples. In contrast, only 41 per cent of respondents rightly said that cohabiting couples are not in a common law marriage.

Responses to the question, commissioned by the University of Exeter and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, show that people are significantly more likely to believe in common law marriage when children come into the equation. Fifty-five per cent of households with children think that common law marriage exists; only 41 per cent of households without any children do so.

Cohabiting couples (48 per cent) are as likely as married couples to believe in common law marriage (49 per cent). But only 39 per cent of singles are of that opinion.

Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter said:

"Our data clearly show that almost half of us falsely believe that common law marriage exists in England and Wales when, in reality, cohabitation grants no general legal status to a couple. Cohabiting couples now account for the fastest growing type of household and the number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families with dependent children has more than doubled in the last decade. Yet whilst 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. Therefore, it's absolutely crucial that we raise awareness of the difference between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage and any differences in rights that come with each."

Responding to the findings, Resolution Cohabitation Chair Graeme Fraser said:

"The figures released by NatCen underline precisely why a change in the law is so desperately needed. Despite the absence of legal protection for cohabitants regularly hitting the headlines, levels of awareness are still worryingly low. This is something Resolution and others have been warning government about for years.

"With cohabiting couples the fastest growing family type in England and Wales, 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."

For the NatCen report, click here.