"Common law marriage" and cohabitation - Commons Library Standard Note

Published 11 November 2013 | Standard notes SN03372

Authors: Catherine Fairbairn

Topic: Cohabitation, Family law

Although cohabitants do have some legal protection in several areas, cohabitation gives no general legal status to a couple, unlike marriage and civil partnership from which many legal rights and responsibilities flow. Many people are unaware that there is no specific legal status for what is often referred to as a “common law marriage”. The Ministry of Justice has funded two voluntary sector partners to manage a campaign to make cohabitants more aware of their legal status and provide them with practical advice on how they can protect themselves and their families, should they wish to do so. Some cohabitants enter into a cohabitation agreement which can act as encouragement to consider what they would want to happen if the relationship ends.

In July 2007, following consultation, the Law Commission published a report, Cohabitation: the financial consequences of relationship breakdown, which considered the financial consequences of the ending of cohabiting relationships. The Law Commission recommended the introduction of a new statutory scheme of financial relief on separation based on the contributions made to the relationship by the parties. The scheme would be available to eligible cohabiting couples. Couples who have had a child together or who have lived together for a minimum period would be eligible. Couples would be able to opt out of the scheme by a written agreement to that effect.

In March 2008, the previous Government announced that it would be taking no action to implement the Law Commission’s recommendations until research on the cost and effectiveness of a similar scheme recently implemented in Scotland could be studied. On 6 September 2011, Jonathan Djanogly, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, announced that, having carefully considered the Law Commission’s recommendations, together with the outcomes of research on the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006, the Government did not intend to reform cohabitation in this Parliamentary term.

This note provides general information about the number of cohabiting couples, how the law applies to cohabitants, and about the Law Commission’s proposals for reform.

Unless specified otherwise, this note deals generally with the law in England and Wales. There is also a short summary of the position in Scotland.

Share this page

Related information

The House of Commons Library provides research, analysis and information services for MPs and their staff.

If you have any comments on briefings from the Commons Library, please contact papers@parliament.uk.

Please note, authors are not available to discuss the contents of papers with members of the general public. 

TwitterFollow House of Commons Library on Twitter

The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.

Email holresearchservices@parliament.uk with comments on Lords Library Notes.

Please note that authors are not available to discuss the contents of Library Notes with members of the general public.

POST produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology. You can leave feedback at www.surveymonkey.com/postnote