Women and the law
The position of women has improved greatly in the two centuries since Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. Careful consideration of the law is still strongly advised, however.
“For co-habiting couples the law affords women no protection. ”
Austen acknowledged that a rich man was likely to be seeking a wife; what she did not add, however, was that that a woman in possession of a good fortune may well have preferred to stay single (as Austen herself did). In the 19th century, a woman had to give up the all rights to any property she owned to her husband when they married, thus losing her financial independence. For those not lucky enough to have independent means, however, marriage was effectively the only option as women were not expected to pursue careers.
Today, women no longer have to cede control of their assets to their husbands and most work outside the home for a large part of their lives so are able to support themselves independently. The law treats marriage as a partnership with each partner presumed to have equal rights to property, pensions and business assets within the relationship, regardless of who brought them to the marriage. Should the relationship break down, the courts will generally presume that the assets should be distributed evenly between the partners.
Pre-nuptial agreements can alter this distribution, and protect the wealth brought into the marriage by either of the partners. These are becoming more common and while they do not have the same force as legislation, they are increasingly accepted in court. It is always in the interests of the wealthier partner to have a pre-nuptial agreement.
But for co-habiting couples the law affords women no protection and, should the relationship end, they will have no rights to a share of their partner’s assets, pensions, maintenance payments or a share in their partner’s business – regardless of whether or not they helped to build up the business, or sacrificed their own earnings and pension potential to look after the family. The law aims only to protect children from the relationship, giving both partners the right to share in their upbringing and the duty to help cover the costs of doing so.
The decision on whether to get married depends on personal circumstances. As a rule of thumb, a young career woman may be better off staying single while she builds up her assets without the risk of ceding half of them to her partner should the relationship break down. When she starts a family, however, which is likely to require a career break, marriage will offer far greater protection.
However, much like the days of Pride and Prejudice, a woman in possession of a good fortune may still prefer to stay single. Or at least have a pre-nuptial agreement to prevent half of her assets passing to her husband.