Almost half of people in England and Wales wrongly believe that ‘common law marriage’ will offer them legal protection in a separation, a study has revealed.
The research, published by The National Centre for Social Research, suggests that thousands of non-married couples are leaving themselves financially vulnerable.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, some 46 per cent of people are “under the wrong impression” that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage.
This is despite there being no legal basis for common law marriage, which offers very little protection compared to couples who are legally married.
Worryingly, awareness of this fact has changed little over the past fourteen years, with a similar number of people (47 per cent) believing in the myth of common law marriage in 2005.
Worse yet, people with children are significantly more likely to believe in common law marriage: 55 per cent of households with children believe in common law marriage versus just 41 per cent without children.
The same can also be said with men compared to women (49 per cent to 44 per cent) and people with a religious affiliation compared to those without a view (49 per cent to 44 per cent).
The research has been published in response to new figures which show that cohabiting couples now account for the fastest growing type of household in England and Wales.
Commenting on the report, Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter, said the policy has failed to keep up with the times.
“Our data clearly show that almost half of us falsely believe that common law marriage exists in England and Wales when, in reality, cohabitation grants no general legal status to a couple. Yet whilst people’s attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation have shifted, the policy has failed to keep up with the times.”
She added that the result is often “severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable party” in the event of separation.
“It’s absolutely crucial that we raise awareness of the difference between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage and any differences in rights that come with each,” she said.