46% of us are under the wrong impression that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage

Almost half of us mistakenly believe that common law marriage exists

Almost half of people in England and Wales mistakenly believe that unmarried couples who live together have a common law marriage and enjoy the same rights as couples that are legally married. 

The first findings from this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey - carried out by The National Centre for Social Research - reveal that 46% of us are under the wrong impression that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage - a figure that remains largely unchanged over the last fourteen years (47% in 2005) despite a significant increase in the number of cohabiting couples. In contrast, only 41% of respondents rightly say cohabiting couples are not in a common law marriage.

Responses to the question, commissioned by the University of Exeter and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, show that people are significantly more likely to believe in common law marriage when children come into the equation; 55% of households with children think that common law marriage exists, only 41% of households without any children do so.

Cohabiting couples (48%) are just as likely as married couples to believe in common law marriage (49%). In contrast, singles were the most clued up group with only 39% saying so.

More men (49%) than women (44%) think that unmarried couples who live together are in a common law marriage. People with a religious affiliation are more likely than those without to share this view (49% vs 44%) as are those without any formal qualification (50% vs 39 % educated to degree level).

A similar knowledge gap is found between different age groups; only 28% of those aged 18 to 24 years and 39% of those aged 65 and over perceive a cohabiting couple to be in a common law marriage, whereas 52% of respondents aged between 25 and 64 years believe this to be the case.

Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter says: “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. Cohabiting couples now account for the fastest growing type of household and the number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families with dependent children has more than doubled in the last decade. Yet whilst people’s attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation have shifted, policy has failed to keep up with the times.

"The result is often severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable party in the event of separation, such as women who have interrupted their career to raise children. Therefore, 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.”

Date: 22 January 2019

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