Cohabiting sensibly

If you're cohabiting, you may feel like you're under pressure to get married. Society tells us marriage is the ultimate commitment and that it makes families stronger.

The legal system also favours marriage and in politics, the Conservative Party are advocating tax breaks for those who say 'I do'.

Whether their policy will encourage more marriages remains to be seen. A survey by the social policy think-tank CIVITAS carried out in 2008 showed that only two per cent of couples aged 20 to 35 wanted to marry for tax reasons.

Yet the same survey showed that eight out of ten did want to get married at some point, meaning that those who choose not to are in the minority.

But what if marriage is not for you? Should you be penalised by the legal and financial systems just because you prefer not to put a ring on your finger?

While it may be some time before cohabiting couples are given the same rights as those who are married or in civil partnerships, if ever, there are some steps you can take to ensure that you and your family are protected.

The first and perhaps most important of these is to draw up a will. Because cohabitors have no legal rights to their partner's estate, failure to write a will could result in the surviving partner receiving little or no inheritance should the other die.

Similarly, issues could arise regarding custody of any children if a couple are not married. Stating how custody should be awarded in a will could therefore provide cohabiters with peace of mind.

Couples putting off writing a will because of the potential costs need not worry, as they can write a will themselves without the expense of solicitor or at a fixed price with Lawpack.

But it is not just death that cohabiting couples need to think about. A break-up could also lead to legal disputes unless certain agreements are reached before or shortly after moving in together.

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, cohabiters are twice as likely to break up as married partners, with two in five cohabiting couples having separated after ten years compared to one in five of those who wed.

With this in mind, it may be sensible to draw up a cohabitation agreement to set out how any joint assets will be split if the partnership does not last, as well as how custody of children will be granted.

Should arguments occur, both parties will have written confirmation of what was agreed, which will be particularly useful if a dispute ends up in court.

A cohabitation agreement may contain details about the ownership of a property, as well as its contents and any personal possessions, information about jointly held bank accounts and a break-down of common expenses and financial responsibilities.

Of course if you're in a happy cohabiting relationship, considering your death or that of your partner, or thinking about a possible break-up, is not particularly pleasant. But without the legal and financial rights of a married couple, you could find yourself coming unstuck if the worst does happen.

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Published on: April 22, 2010

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