For Valentine’s Day – love, romance…and a firm legal footing
Cards and flowers are lovely but for a truly memorable Valentine’s Day, couples should get the law on their side.
Ok, so the finer points of legal documents don’t rank high on the Romance Richter scale, but they can still play a surprisingly positive role in creating better relationships for couples who choose to cohabit rather than marry.
There are more than three million cohabiting couples in Britain. Many of them are under the impression that if they live together for two years, they have the same rights as married couples over things like maintenance, property, children, pensions and inheritance.
This is simply not true. In fact, they have very few legal rights. The concept of common law marriage was abolished in 1753 but has lived on in myth and legend ever since and still causes untold hardship for many people.
The message was driven home more than 30 years ago in the landmark case of Burns v Burns which went all the way to the House of Lords. The couple weren’t married but had lived together for 19 years and the woman had even taken her partner’s name.
She brought up their two children, looked after the house and contributed to household expenses. None of that meant much when they split up and she was denied a share of the house. As a mere cohabitee she had no automatic rights.
It’s time the myth was exploded once and for all: cohabitants don’t have the same legal protection as married couples, no matter how long they have been together.
Consider another scenario: a father who is not married to the mother of his child at the time of the birth will not have automatic parental rights. He will have parental responsibility if he jointly registered the child’s birth, but even that only applies to children born since December 2003.
Disputes about things like contact might have to be thrashed out in court in the event of a break-up. That can be hard, not least for the children who sometimes find themselves caught in a bitter crossfire between their parents.
The Law Commission has regularly put forward proposals that would give cohabiting couples more legal protection, but their recommendations have not been implemented.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Couples can draw up living together agreements. These are legal documents that set down how they organise their finances and how things might be divided if there’s a dispute.
They’ve helped thousands of people cement their relationships and stop those occasional doubts about what might happen if they split up. They shouldn’t be thought of as a doomsday scenario but as a way of putting an already strong relationship on an even firmer foundation.
Even in good relationships, little niggles and irritations build up about who is paying for what and so on. Most couples find that making a living together agreement helps them discuss such things and iron out any problems, instead of letting them fester on causing silent resentment for years.
Once the agreements are complete, both partners can get on with their lives with an extra feeling of security.
Living together agreements may not seem romantic, and legal language may not provide you with sweet nothings to whisper as you cuddle on your new, jointly owned sofa, but they may stop you fighting over that same sofa if you break up.