Will a law change bring the rules for cohabiting couples into the 21st Century?
Back in November, I discussed the question of cohabitation, and drew on the somewhat unusual example of a once-popular 1980s sitcom to explore the fact that it is really not such a modern invention as we sometimes think.
Of course, knowing that in the real world is one thing, but in the hallowed corridors of the UK legal system, the wheels turn very slowly. This is why that previous piece made reference to cohabitation agreements as a way to for cohabiting couples to give themselves and each other similar levels of protection to that enjoyed by married couples.
After all, it behoves us all to protect ourselves as best we can, as there is little we can do to change the law. Or is there? A widow from Belfast has other ideas, and her supreme court case over bereavement payments could have major repercussions for all of us.
The case of Siobhan McLaughlin
Siobhan McLaughlin and John Adams enjoyed a 23 year relationship, and had four children together. Tragically, Adams passed away in 2014. The children were aged 19, 17, 13 and 11 at the time. Had the couple been married, McLaughlin would have been entitled to a £2,000 bereavement payment as a lump sum, plus a widowed parent allowance of £118 per week. As they were not married, however, she was entitled to nothing.
McLaughlin brought a case before the High Court in 2015, and a landmark ruling agreed that she was entitled to the widowed parent allowance, despite not being a “widow” in the legal sense. However, elation became deflation when the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal in late 2016.
For many, that would have been the end of it, but McLaughlin is now taking the matter to the Supreme Court.
A growing issue
McLaughlin’s one-woman battle against the system in Northern Ireland comes at a time when the government is facing increasing pressure to extend similar rights to cohabiting couples as they do to those who are married. Conservative MP Tim Loughton is leading a Private Members Bill on this very issue, which recently had its second reading.
Meanwhile, in May, the Supreme Court will hear a similar case, that of Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld. They argue that: “civil partnerships are a modern social institution conferring almost identical legal rights and responsibilities as marriage”.
The growing unrest at the inequalities and outdatedness in the system are hardly surprising. There are now around 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK – more than twice as many as there were just 20 years ago, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
Nigel Shepherd is head of family law at a major London law firm. He told The Guardian: “At the moment the system risks great injustice, and research shows that cohabiting couples don’t realise they are vulnerable. People still believe that if you live together for a significant amount of time you acquire rights as a common-law spouse, but that is simply not the case.”
Protect yourself and your partner
The signs of a possible change in legislation are great news, but we need to live in the here and now – and that brings us back full circle to the topic of cohabitation agreements. The mere mention of them often leads people to assume they are there to protect their own interests in the case of a relationship breakdown. However, it goes far deeper than that. We all hope that if we are in a loving and long term relationship, it will be a case of “till death do us part,” whether we are married or not. And we would all be horrified to think that when that parting does come, the one left behind might face financial difficulty.
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