The decline in marriage and importance of legally binding cohabitation agreements

28th February 2023

The Guardian recently published an article highlighting the significant decline in marriage rates using data from the 2021 census.

The decline was most notable amongst people aged 25 to 35, with 1.2 million more people being unmarried in that age bracket when compared to 2011. Looking back further to 1991, the number of unmarried people in that age bracket has more than doubled. It is cohabitation that is on the rise. We look in more detail at this rising trend and what it means for couples. Do you need a legally binding cohabitation agreement?

Suspected causes of the decline

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have been blamed for the decline in marriage. The pandemic saw an estimated 320,000 weddings being postponed between the first lockdown in March 2020 and the lifting of restrictions in June 2021. However, the data shows that marriage rates have been on a steady decline way before COVID-19.

Changing social norms and ideals may also have a part to play. The commitment and formality involved in marriage is increasingly viewed as outdated and patriarchal. Young people are putting family-oriented relationships on hold to focus on their careers, experiences with friends and travel.

A combination of the above and a variety of other factors has seen cohabitation become the fast-growing family unit in the UK, with the total number of cohabitating couples increasing by 144% since 1996.

Myth buster – Common law marriage and Cohabitation Agreements

The concern behind an increasing number of cohabitating couples is that some believe that when they have lived with someone for long enough, they are in a form of “common law marriage” and have acquired rights similar to those of married couple. This is a completely false and dangerous myth.

On the breakdown of a cohabitating relationship, the law does not give cohabitees the same right to financial support or to share in their partners’ assets. For example, unlike married couples who can make a claim for spousal maintenance in certain circumstances, one cohabitee cannot ask the other for maintenance payments to assist with their costs of living. This is particularly worrying for those who have given up working to look after their children and have subsequently become financially dependent on their partner.

To better protect themselves in case the relationship breaks down, cohabitees can enter into an agreement known as a “Cohabitation Agreement” or “Cohabitation Contract“. A cohabitation agreement is legally binding and sets out the specifics of a couple’s capital assets and how their respective finances will be utilised during the relationship. For example, the parties’ interests in the home and how household expenses are to be paid during the relationship. Importantly, it also sets out what will happen to the parties’ finances and capital assets if the couple decide they no longer want to live together. This is important where for example, the parties are co-owners of a property, but have contributed to the purchase price in unequal proportions and therefore do not want to divide the proceeds of sale equally.

How we can help

For more information on legally binding cohabitation agreements, please contact us. We have a team of experienced family lawyers who can guide you if you think the issues raised in this article might apply to you. We can go through all the options available to you and help you decide your best course of action. Contact our experts to see what we can do for you.

If we can assist you with anything in this article

Speak to a member of our family law team

Arrange A call