To say ‘I do’, or not to say ‘I do’; that is the question

The true cost of weddings and the rise in cohabitation

A recent survey concluded that the average cost of a wedding in the UK now stands at nearly £22,000. That’s a 50% rise in a decade, and a sobering thought for many brides (and grooms) to be. This figure includes a staggering average spend per guest of £233. Not surprising then, that guest lists are shrinking (the average has dropped from 104 to 97) and that only 31% of couples fund the event completely by themselves. Many have abandoned the idea of affording a honeymoon immediately after the day, choosing to delay until their bank account recovers a little.

married couple

And yet more of us are choosing not to marry at all. The Office for National Statistics has had time to crunch its way through the numbers from the latest national census in 2010, what’s clear is the significant increase in the number of couples choosing to remain as cohabitees; although we should, perhaps, use the word ‘choosing’ advisedly. As Anastasia de Waal, of the think-tank Civitas has observed, “When interpreting these statistics it’s crucially important to factor in the gap between what couples want to do and what they are doing in practice.”

She goes on to highlight that for many couples, affording not just the wedding, but the family home and car that so many couple see as a pre-requisite to marriage, is now simply unrealistic. And so however much they might want to marry, many couples don’t. As a result, couples who live as cohabitees in the UK now outnumber married couples for the first time. Cohabitation has doubled since 1996 , and is the fastest growing family ‘type’ in Britain. In an increasingly secular society it is hard to pinpoint the social impact of these statistics; thankfully, the days of serious social stigma being assigned to a couple living together are long gone. However, while many of those living in this kind of household may not realise it, there are legal consequences that flow from the decision to cohabit that could have potentially sizeable impact on each individual’s financial future.


No such thing as ‘common law marriage’

One of the most commonly believed ‘urban myths’ in this country is that cohabitees have the same rights as married couples in relation to the division of assets and the responsibilities for any children. A recent survey found that at least 58% of us still cling to the notion of ‘common law marriage’. To discover the non-existence of such legal protection only at the point of separation is heart-breaking for many.

In broad terms, the legal position for many cohabiting couples whose relationship ends is determined not by matrimonial law, but by an application of strict property law. In recent years an increasing number of separated couples have taken their disputes to court in the hope of being an exception to the rule; in the case of Jones v Kernott (2011), there are hints that reform may be forthcoming, and there are those in the profession who feel that legislation is long overdue.


And what about the children?

The recent census also highlighted the increase in birth registrations to cohabiting couples; 21% in 1996 climbed to 31% of all children being born, in 2010. And there are now more children from living with cohabiting parents and/or step-parents, than live in married households (39% v 38%). With our birth-rate currently booming, this figure is very much likely to increase. Establishing who has parental responsibility for children, when a relationship ends, is also not a clear-cut picture. For example, for a father to have automatic parental responsibility for his children, his name must appear on their birth certificate.


Forewarned is forearmed

Here at Prince Family Law we would strongly recommend a sensible approach to the management of joint assets for cohabiting couples, and welcome the growing trend for Cohabitation/Living Together agreements. We are also able to assist in disputes relating to issues of residence and contact with children.  We would encourage our clients to focus on the fine detail of the cohabitation arrangement, to ensure that all parties’ needs are well met in the sad event of family breakdown.