LGFL was contacted by Radio 5 Live at 10am on Wednesday morning asking if Rita could be part of a live discussion on air - at 10.30am! Rita was busy packing her bags to return home after a short break, but literally dropped everything to be on air.
The result was a great discussion with presenter Qasa Alom and relationship expert Jo Hemmings on the legal rights of cohabitating couples.
You can listen now at the at the BBC website, or our YouTube channel.
BBC Sounds (starts 1hr 44 mins in)
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Thanks to Qasa and his team for thinking of Rita, and feel free to call us again anytime!
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Here’s the transcript of the discussion between presenter Qasa Alom, relationship expert Jo Hemmings, LGFL Managing Director Rita Gupta and caller Alicia from Manchester.
New data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in England and Wales last year for the first time, since records began, unmarried women gave birth to the majority of babies. So we're talking about how society's changed.
We've heard from an earlier caller about the pain of having her child forcibly removed because she was unmarried. Now two generations on, it's the norm for a mother to be unmarried, whether that's as a cohabiting relationship, or single mother.
Let's speak to Rita Gupta now, who's a family lawyer, and also Jo Hemmings. who's a relationship expert as well.
Jo, we’re seeing the family, dynamic change. Just tell us what you've seen and how this is affecting people's relationships, and the way we interact with each other.
Yes it's interesting. It doesn't surprise me that the statistics would come out today saying that more children are born to unmarried mothers.
I've seen a lot of change in my relationship counselling.
• Firstly, weddings are massively expensive now.
• Secondly, they cause a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety.
I feel the joy of has gone out of getting married for a lot of people because of those two factors. So the statistics don't surprise me. But what I see more and more are people adapting to blended families.
As a psychologist and a relationship counsellor, I talk to a lot of couples who are now in situations where in the blended family, all the children have come together. How do they cope? I think we have to accept that we are moving on and it's a positive thing.
We're going in a very positive direction in terms of family dynamics and accepting and understanding and appreciating those changes. These have come quite swiftly, particularly listening to some of your earlier callers and the awful things that they went through so many years ago. I feel that we're losing the stigma fast and that's a really good thing.
So positive changes losing that stigma, but from a legal point of view, Rita, is that the case?
I totally agree with everything that Jo has said. Unfortunately, the law hasn't caught up with a changing society.
Having done this job for 20 plus years, I've noted more and more cohabiting couples. Even if parties have got married or gone on to get married, they've often cohabited often for quite a period of time before that.
Unfortunately the law doesn't give cohabiting couples the same level of protection that it does married couples. It's a policy decision almost. It's always been very difficult to uphold the sanctity of marriage, perhaps, and at the same time protect cohabiting couples.
I think the biggest message I'd give is there's no such thing as a common law spouse. There is this common misconception that “I’m somebody's common law wife” or “common law husband”. That concept doesn't exist in law.
So what sort of protections are we talking about here?
If you have children, you can apply for child maintenance. There's also provisions that you can apply for under the Children’s Act. But they are quite expensive, time-consuming litigation.
The reality is that when you go into a cohabiting relationship, nobody goes into any relationship expecting it to end. So it’s usually built on trust. You build a home together. But things like the ownership of property or assets in one person's name are not going to be up for division the way that they are if you were married.
So the big thing that I would say is that if, for example, you are moving in with somebody or buying a property, you do need to take some advice. I appreciate that's not very romantic and nobody really wants to go and do it, but I think you do need to take advice as to how property is owned.
Maybe looking at things like trust deeds or even cohabitation agreements. Set things out from the outset as to what the party's intentions are, and to give some protection in case the relationship isn't an enduring one.
Is that one of the tensions, Jo, that can come into relationships, just figuring out the legal details and who would get what, in the case of a divorce or a break-up?
I think it's very difficult for couples who are moving in together with all the hope in the world and the joy, that they actually have to look at the legal side of it if it doesn't work out.
It sort of feels like ‘pre-nup’ territory, you know, that kind of legalese that you don't want to anticipate your relationship will ever end. But (Rita’s) advice is absolutely right - just step away from the romantic side and just be pragmatic.
It's really important because the law has not caught up. You just need to bear in mind that it's lagged behind as it's so often does. In cultural, sociological changes, it just isn't there. So you've got to beat that system, and recognise what you have to do.
An area that particularly needs to be looked at is, if you're a woman, and you've had a child within that enduring relationship. You've stepped back from your career. You are the more vulnerable party. If that relationship ends, there isn't the financial protection that there is if you were married. Also if you've had that career break, or you would only be able to work part-time, there's then the crushing costs of childcare.
So a lot needs to be thought about, which unfortunately most people don't address. Similarly, family money often comes into it. People got a deposit from an inheritance or their parents. Preserving that with a declaration of trust would maybe giving people a period of time on how they would divide things, or sell houses after or if the relationship broke down is all a very wise thing to do. But I appreciate it’s not the most romantic thing to do, and people find it an awkward conversation to raise.
It's so funny that you talk about this Rita and I'll tell you why. Because that was kind of how I convinced my wife to marry me! She's very logical and just didn't see the point in it. I had to bring up all that, (and say) look at all the benefits we're going to get, and listed them. Then she (says), “I think you're right actually”. So it's more the practical side of things that convinced her in that sense.
I want to bring Alicia in Manchester in on this conversation because Alicia, you can't see the point of marriage, can you? Listening to Jo and Rita here, has it changed your mind at all?
No, it hasn’t. I’ve done a little bit of research on that. What is important for me is that if anything happens to either of us, everything my partner owns goes to my child. So I just feel like as long as my child is protected, then it's fine.
We discussed everything before we decided to have a child. We paid for the childcare 50/50. We both work full time. We just try to communicate because obviously there's a lot on with a baby and full-time work. We just make sure we talk about it and just try to balance it all out.
It's a good plan. You've clearly had that communication and got everything down, which is important. Jo, is there anything that you would add to that?
I think that's sort of getting around the law, isn't it, to make sure that you have done something to protect yourself. And Alicia clearly has. I think the danger zone is where we've got an archaic law and people don't really care, they move in together.
I think it's a really good point (Rita made) about things like deposits. On properties when you break up and it's acrimonious, that's when it gets worse.
• If you have a very amicable breakup, you can sort it out between you.
• If it's not amicable and you have to go down the legal route, people are in real trouble.
So I would always say to couples, do that homework, make sure in some way, whether get married or not that you put something in place. To protect yourselves just in case you do break up. It's really important.
Alicia is obviously somebody who has thought about things very carefully and they've had candid, open discussions together. But many couples don't do that. They skate around subjects or it's slightly awkward, so they don't want to discuss the fact that actually somebody put £20,000 or £50,000 more into a property.
So I think if you've got open, honest communication, then that's a positive thing. If you've done the research, then that's a very positive thing.
I would say the majority probably don't think about things as carefully. That's where problems do arise because, when these cohabiting relationships (end) and/or if there's a dispute about property, they are very messy disputes and very expensive to deal with.
Getting early advice, thinking about things, and having these communications is the right thing to do, but the law needs to catch up.
Our family law organisation, Resolution, has been campaigning for years to make sure that cohabiting couples get the protection that married couples do get. That has to obviously be after a period of it being an enduring relationship, not after you've moved in with someone for a month. There are some people who have been cohabiting much longer than married couples.
Thank you to Rita Gupta, who's a family lawyer, saying that the law needs to catch up with the way modern families are set up these days.
Interested in the legal rights of cohabitating couples?
Check out our cohabitation pages and articles:
- Cohabitation disputes
- Cohabitation agreements
- House-hunting? Why you should discuss Joint Tenants and Tenants In Common with your family lawyer
- Cohabitation: trouble in waiting?
- Cohabitation agreements: better safe than sorry
- Unmarried cohabitee wins right to her former partner’s pension
Or contact us to book a fixed free consultation to discuss your unique situation in complete confidence:
- Call us
- Email us