Report highlights shift in attitudes to family life and marriage

According to a recently published report, unmarried couples are, for the first time, just as likely as married couples to have children. More than ever before cohabitation is being seen as an alternative to marriage, rather than just a trail run before embarking on married life.

The report, commissioned by the Co-operative’s new family law service, suggests that a significant proportion of cohabiting couples are not aware of their rights because the law has failed to keep up with radical changes in family life. Researchers from Leeds University, Dr Esmee Hanna and Dr David Grainger – both specialists in changes in family relationships – have traced the evidence for the change in the shifting attitudes to parenting through the results of the 2001 and 2011 censuses.

Their research shows that the number of cohabiting couples with dependent children has increased by 34% in the 10 years to 2011. During this time, the total number of cohabiting families with dependent children aged under 18 increased by 292,000, whilst the number of married couples with dependent children fell by 319,000.

In 2011, 38% of cohabiting couples were parents which is the same percentage of married couples who have children. During 2010 the number of babies born to women who lived with but were not married to their partner rose by 25% compared to 2001. However more married couples have children compared with cohabiting couples in the UK.

The speed of the these changes is reflected in a survey commissioned for the Co-operative’s report which shows that 52% believe that marriage is not necessary, provided that the couple are in a stable relationship. Over 2,000 couples were questioned in the survey and 27% hold the more traditional view that couples should be married before they have children.

Although cohabiting is increasingly socially acceptable, the report recognises that cohabiting couple families to tend to be less stable than families where the parents are married. Family breakdowns involving young children are more likely to involve unmarried couples, the research also reveals.

One of the most striking results of the survey is the confusion that still surrounds the legal rights of cohabiting couples compared to those of married couples. Of the adults who took part in the survey, over a quarter (26%) believed that cohabiting couples have the same rights of married couples when it comes to child custody whilst 22% believe this equal status also applies to property.

Dr Hanna and Dr Grainger said: “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. As the number of cohabiting couples increases, they are increasingly seen as a socially legitimate family environment for childbearing.”

Christina Blacklaws from Co-operative Legal Services added: “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.”

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