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Cohabitation law reform moves forward

A move to give cohabiting couples greater protection from “economic unfairness” when they separate has taken another step forward.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Marks’ Cohabitation Rights Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on 12 December and will now progress to its committee stage, a line by line examination of the contents, which has yet to be scheduled.

He told the Lords: “I make it clear at the outset that the Bill’s proposals do not equate cohabitation with marriage – far from it.

“That does not mean that where a cohabiting relationship breaks down, there should not be a mechanism to adjust the economic impact of the relationship so as to share it more fairly between the parties. The Bill’s proposals aim to address economic unfairness at the end of a relationship that has enriched one party and impoverished the other in a way that demands redress.”

Provisions of the Bill include giving former partners the right to apply for a financial settlement within two years of their cohabiting relationship ending and enabling one partner in a cohabiting couple to inherit an interest in the other’s estate should they die without making a will. Under current intestacy law, cohabiting partners are excluded from any automatic inheritance.

Family law body Resolution, which advocates a non-confrontational, collaborative approach to resolving family disputes, has welcomed the Bill.

Steve Kirwan, who leads Resolution’s work on cohabitation law reform, said: “More couples are living together than ever before, with an estimated 2,859,000 cohabiting households in Britain – that’s a significant portion of the country who are currently served by outdated and unfair laws. “

Resolution has proposed a new cohabitation law that goes further than Lord Marks’ proposals. It has called for cohabitants meeting eligibility criteria indicating a committed relationship, such as having lived together as a couple for a minimum period or having a child together, to have the right to apply for certain financial orders if they separate. This right would be automatic unless the couple chooses to opt out.

Graeme Fraser from Resolution’s cohabitation committee added: “In the continued absence of automatic legal protection, cohabitants should seek legal advice about their position at significant points in their relationship, not just when the relationship breaks down, but when a property is being purchased for their occupation, and to ensure fairness on death.”