STEP disappointed by government inaction on reforming legal protections for cohabiting couples

The UK government has rejected a call from a cross-party Commons Select Committee to reform law for cohabiting couples.

The Women and Equalities Committee called for reform to family law in England and Wales to better protect cohabiting couples and their children from financial hardship due to separation.

The Committee holds the government to account on equality law and policy, including The Equality Act 2010 and cross-government activity on equalities.

The government, in its response to the Committee’s report published yesterday, said that existing work on the law of marriage and divorce must conclude before it could consider changes to the law about the rights of cohabitants.

STEP is very disappointed that the government has rejected calls to reform legal protections for cohabiting partners.

Given the changes to families over the past few decades, including society becoming less marriage-centric, it is important that legal structures provide some default protection for the many families that do not conform to traditional definitions.

In particular, we believe it is important that cohabitants have rights under the intestacy rules. The current situation means that if cohabiting couples have not made wills, they will not inherit anything if their partner were to pass away, unlike married couples. The existing lack of legal protections can leave bereaved cohabitants financially vulnerable during very difficult circumstances.

We also believe it would be progressive to apply the same exemption from inheritance tax to cohabitants that applies to married couples.

In addition, in the event of relationship breakdown, there are certain exemptions and time periods for divorce/civil partnerships that allow for arrangements to be made to disentangle and rearrange financial affairs without tax liabilities arising. We would suggest that this is also something that should be considered for cohabitation.

We outlined this and other areas in our response to the Women and Equalities Call for Evidence in July 2021.

In this response we also recognise some of the challenges to implementing legal protections for cohabitants, such as the need to agree a legal definition of cohabitation in order to provide objective criteria on what constitutes a cohabiting relationship.

While this may be difficult to define, we believe that efforts should be made to do so. This issue is only going to increase in importance, as data has shown cohabiting couples to be the fastest growing family type in the UK.

We will continue to pursue reform and ask the government to revisit this important issue.

Emily Deane TEP, Technical Counsel and Head of Government Affairs

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