More couples are living together as a permanent replacement for marriage, as the percentage of cohabiting couples with children is now at the same level as married couples. 

A recent academic study by Leeds University found that for the first time ever, the percentage of cohabiting couples with children equals that of married couples with children.

In 2011, 38 per cent of cohabiting couples were parents – the same percentage as married couples with children – and 31 per cent of live births in 2010 were to women cohabiting with but not married to their partner, up from 25 per cent in 2001.

According to the figures, the total number of cohabiting families with dependent children increased by 292,000 between 2001 and 2011, whilst the number of married couples with dependent children decreased by 319,000.

The report suggests that more couples are raising children outside of marriage, suggesting that many couples are not using it as a “trial run” before they tie the knot but instead as a replacement for marriage when having a long-term relationship and raising children.

30 per cent of those polled said they would live with a partner to “test the strength” of a relationship before marriage, but 20 per cent said that they never wished to get married and 21 per cent said they would do it simply to reduce bills.

Social acceptance 

The study highlighted that cohabiting is becoming more socially acceptable, as 52 per cent of people now believe that marriage isn’t important provided the parents are in “a committed relationship”. Only 27 per cent now believe that couples should get married before having children.

But the report suggested that couples with children who live together are less stable than married couples with children, as a higher proportion of all family breakdowns involve young children from unmarried parents.

Confusion over legal rights 

But although unmarried couples are more likely to break up, a quarter of couples surveyed wrongly believed that they had the same legal rights as married couples.

26 per cent of adults believe that unmarried couples have the same legal rights as married couples when it comes to child custody, 22 per cent when it comes to property and 21 per cent when it comes to finances.

But couples living together don’t have the same legal protection and the idea that unmarried couples are protected by the law because it’s considered to be a ‘common law marriage’ isn’t true.

The law is complicated when unmarried couples break up, even if they have been living together for a long time and have children.

For example, assets which are in the ex-partner’s sole name (including property) remain their assets, meaning that the parent with responsibility for a child after the break-up may find themselves in serious financial difficulties.

Couples who live together are advised to draft a cohabitation agreement in order to protect themselves and their rights should they break up at a later date.

If you want to find out more about your rights – or lack of them – as an unmarried couple, Lawpack’s book Living Together – An Essential Legal Guide can help. Written by a family law solicitor, it’s packed with expert advice on how you can protect yourself.

For more information on your legal status and parental rights when cohabiting, see our articles below.


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Published on: September 25, 2012