UK sees same proportion of cohabiting and married couples with children for first time

September 20, 2012

The Co-operative Legal Services urges cohabiting couples to think carefully about how they protect themselves and their families

For the first time ever, the percentage of cohabiting couples with children equals that of married couples with children, according to a new academic report published to coincide with The Co-operative’s move into family law services.

The report, which is based on analysis of ONS data and consumer research, points to a significant increase (34 per cent) in the number of cohabiting couples with dependent children in the ten years to 2011. According to the report, between 2001 and 2011, the total number of cohabiting families with dependent children increased by 292,000, whilst married couples with dependent children fell by 319,000. This suggests that increasingly, cohabitation is no longer seen as a ‘trial run’ before marriage and children, but as a replacement for marriage for both long-term relationships and the raising of children.

The research also highlights the extent to which cohabiting couples are seen as a socially acceptable family environment for children, with over half (52 per cent) of people believing that marriage is not important providing the parents are in a committed relationship. Only 27 per cent maintain the more traditional view that couples should be married before having children.

The result of this shift in attitude could account for the fact that in 2011, 38 per cent of cohabiting couples were parents - the same percentage as married couples with children  – and 31 per cent of live births in 2010 were to women cohabiting with but not married to their partner, up from 25 per cent in 2001.

However, despite the increasing social legitimacy, the report acknowledges that cohabiting couple families continue to be less stable than married couple families. With a higher proportion of all family breakdowns involving young children from unmarried parents, the research reveals the potential for future issues with confusion over the legal rights of cohabiting couples compared to married couples. Of those questioned, over a quarter (26 per cent) of adults believe that cohabiting couples have the same rights as married couples when it comes to child custody, 22 per cent when it comes to property and 21 per cent when it comes to finances.

The reality is that the law is different and complicated when it comes to people who are not married breaking up even if they have been living together for a long time and have children. For example, assets which are in the ex-partner’s sole name (including property) remain their assets, meaning that the parent with responsibility for a child after the breakup may find themselves in serious financial difficulties.

Commenting on the findings, Christina Blacklaws, Director of Family Law at The Co-operative Legal Services, said: 

“This report makes it clear that cohabitation is on the rise. However, whilst this is now increasingly seen as a socially accepted trend, the law has not kept up and clearly there is confusion about the rights of cohabiting families. Although many people still believe they have rights as common law spouses, there is no such status in law. As a result, some cohabiting families may find themselves facing real difficulties should they split up, particularly when there are children involved.

“It is clear that this area of family law is in urgent need of an overhaul. However, in the meantime, people need to think carefully about how they protect themselves and their families – preferably by reaching and signing agreements about what would happen if you did split up. This could save a huge amount of cost and heartache if the worst happens.”

Other findings include:

  • Almost a third (30 per cent) would cohabit to test the strength of their relationship before marriage, 21 per cent would cohabit in order to reduce living costs. 20 per cent said they had ‘no desire to get married’ but would be prepared to cohabit.
  • The rising prevalence of cohabiting couples may account for the continuing rise in lone parent families, with number of such families increasing by 14 per cent.
  • Whilst the way families are living continues to evolve, the research shows that families remain extremely important to many of us, with, among other things, people associating their family with happiness (47 per cent), stability (28 per cent), trust (35 per cent) and love (67 per cent).

The analysis, commissioned by The Co-operative Legal Services, was conducted by academic experts Dr Esmée Hanna and Dr David Grainger, who were both part of the Leeds University Timescapes longitudinal study which explored how personal and family relationships develop and change over time.

Dr Hanna and Dr Grainger commented:

“Part of the decline in marriage in recent years can perhaps be explained by the increase in cohabitation as a family format, with ever more couples choosing to live together. And, as the number of cohabiting couples increases, they are increasingly seen as a socially legitimate family environment for child bearing. As our research showed, attitudes have also changed, with only 27% of people believing people should be married before having children, whilst over half thought that a committed relationship was the most important thing.”

As part of its move into family law, The Co-operative Legal Services has launched a Family Law Customer Charter which sets out the five customer focused core standards that everyone using the service can expect.  The promises include fixed fees, a commitment to help clients reach the best possible outcome for themselves and their family, to handle all cases with sensitivity and jargon-free communications to ensure ease of understanding.

The Co-operative, which earlier this year became the first major consumer brand to be granted alternative business structure (ABS) status under the new Legal Services Act, will offer a comprehensive range of family law services which includes divorce, child protection, mediation and financial issues.

Anyone wanting more information on family services provided by The Co-operative legal services can visit or call 0844 728 0437