Should cohabiting couples have similar rights as married couples? The case for.

After fifteen years together, David and Anne split up. More to the point, David walked out on Anne and moved in with another woman. Anne and their two young children, aged 9 and 10, are still living in the family home. The split wasn’t especially acrimonious. But nor was it pleasant or in any way generous. David agreed to keep paying the mortgage for another six months but told Anne he is going to sell the house which is in his name. He will also contribute a fairly minimal living allowance. Anne will supplement this by signing up for benefits and tax credits as a lone parent.

It’s an everyday tragedy of family breakdown. But what makes it especially awful is that David and Anne never married.

When they had children, Anne put her career on hold to focus on the children. Only in the last few years had she started to get back into work. David’s employer paid his salary straight into an account in his name. He then transferred a monthly ‘allowance’ to Anne to pay for food and running costs. Although he was never stingy with the allowance, any left over cash generally went into a pension fund investment in his name. David was also building up a company pension fund entitlement from his employer.

Anne would always have liked them to get married but never wanted to push the point. “After all, it’s just a piece of paper” she used to say to her friends, perhaps a little defensively. “Anyway, we have a common law marriage“.

Actually, they don’t. Although nearly half of young adults may think otherwise, ‘Common law marriage‘ doesn’t exist and never has. Outside of marriage, the law protects only the children. The result is that David must continue to provide for his children, under the Children’s Act 1989. He has no obligation to support Anne.

There’s a terrible injustice here. Anne has made a major contribution to the family. By investing her own love and energy into looking after the children at home, she has allowed David to pursue his career as main breadwinner and has sacrificed her own career. And yet, financially speaking, she has nothing to show for it. Anne keeps whatever is in her name, which is not much. David keeps whatever is in his name, which is most of it.

As a couple, they made two major errors for which Anne pays most heavily. The first was that, in happier times, they could have made sure that all of their savings were in joint names. It would have been complicated to do that for David’s future pension but it was easy enough to do with what they had already accumulated. Why they didn’t do that is anyone’s guess. Maybe it was sheer inertia. They simply hadn’t got round to switching his pay and savings into joint names. But maybe there was something more fundamental. David didn’t want to relinquish control and Anne was too fearful of the argument that might result by discussing it.

But the main error was that they didn’t get married. And now Anne gets nothing.

Who knows. If they had decided to marry, maybe David might have viewed his financial plans more in terms of their future as a couple, rather than just his own. Maybe he might have become less controlling, if that was indeed the case. Maybe, just maybe, the very fact that they never married was because David never really bought into the idea of a permanent future together in the first place. In other words, not getting married allowed him to maintain his own sense of autonomy. So when times got a little hard and another woman came along, the commitment he had to Anne wasn’t strong enough to dissuade him from running off.

David had never fully committed.

Next Thursday 8th January, the Sunday Times and Marriage Foundation are hosting a panel debate, chaired by the BBC’s John Humphrys, on whether cohabiting couples like David and Anne should have legal rights that prevent this kind of injustice. According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.1 million families with dependent children were headed by a cohabiting couple in 2013. My own research shows that cohabiting parents account for half of all family breakdown affecting children. So this is a common problem.

On the face of it, there seems to be a strong case for a law that protects homemakers like Anne who contribute to a family non-financially but get left in the lurch when the breadwinner leaves. I am all too familiar with the awfulness of this situation. A member of my own family was badly affected by this.

But there is a counter argument and it’s a strong one. By changing the law to correct one injustice, we will create a much larger problem.

In my next post, I’ll explain why I and my colleague Sir Paul Coleridge, founder of Marriage Foundation, think this is the much more important issue.

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One thought on “Should cohabiting couples have similar rights as married couples? The case for.

  1. Pingback: Giving cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples will undermine men’s commitment |

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