In 2011 Facebook updated its relationship status choices to include ‘in a civil union’ and ‘in a domestic partnership’. If this is a sign of the times, then British law is perhaps unsurprisingly some way behind, recognising only a narrow range of relationships as capable of being formalised in law ie marriage for heterosexual couples and civil partnerships for same sex couples. With the Gay Marriage Bill progressing in Parliament and changing these long accepted definitions, it is a good opportunity for politicians to consider the most common relationship structures in Britain, and whether the law reflects this reality. In what way do you choose to define your family unit and partner status, and most importantly, do you make this decision based on the rights and protection in law that come with the definition?

The Gay Marriage Bill marks a huge change to the definition of formalised relationships as we know them in law and following recent parliamentary voting, it continues in its journey towards implementation. However, during the voting the amendment to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples was defeated by 375 to 70 votes. The defeat was mainly politically motivated to ensure the Bill a smooth passage into parliament. But the idea of extending civil partnerships as another possible form of legally recognised relationship in British law has been met with some controversy; does it undermine the institution of marriage, is it a political red herring, is it necessary when marriage offers all legal protection necessary to couples? Civil partnerships are already open to both homosexual and heterosexual couples in Brazil, New Zealand, Uruguay, Ecuador, France and the U.S. states of Colorado, Hawaii and Illinois, offering a different choice of union for straight couples. Putting aside the political dilemmas, do heterosexual civil partnerships have something new to offer the way we structure and recognise families in Britain?

Take a couple who have been living together for ten years as a heterosexual couple. They could have chosen not to get married for a variety of reasons- for religious, or rather non religious reasons, for social reasons, for financial reasons if they can’t afford the ‘big day’/ honeymoon, or for political reasons for example if they disagree with the traditionally patriarchal design of marriage. Perhaps being a ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ just isn’t for someone, but being in a serious, committed relationship, sharing property and having children together is. For those who feel uncomfortable with the institution of marriage, civil partnerships for straight couples could be a serious modern day alternative.

For people choosing to formalise their relationship in this way, civil partnerships could cause a huge shift in couples’ and families’ legal rights. Are you aware of the legal rights of an unmarried partner, even if in a serious, committed and long term cohabiting relationship? A study by the Co-operative Legal Services in 2011 reported that the number of cohabiting families with dependent children increased by 292,000 between 2010 and 2011, whereas married couples with dependent children fell by 319,000. Also, over half of the people questioned believed that marriage is not important as long as parents are in a committed relationship. Incidentally, in 2011 38% of cohabiting couples were parents, the same percentage as married couples with children1. Clearly, cohabiting couples are being recognised as engaged in serious and committed relationships and the number of children born to unmarried couples are on the increase. Despite a growing trend for unmarried relationships, the legal rights afforded to these couples remain limited. Worryingly, few people realise how different the legal position is for married and unmarried couples. In the same study, 26% of adults believed that cohabitating couples have the same rights as married couples when it comes to custody, 22% when it comes to property and 21% when it comes to finances.

The reality is for our couple who have been living together for many years, sharing the use of their assets and property, the legal rights available on the breakdown of their relationship are incredibly limited compared to the breakdown of a marriage. This seems particularly unfair if children are involved. The weaker party will find themselves in a much more vulnerable position on the breakdown on an un-formalised relationship than they would on divorce.

Civil partnerships for heterosexual couples could offer an alternative to couples who want to form a serious relationship without getting married. A partnership would be a way for their relationship to be formally recognised in law as a union between two people without the same social complications as are perhaps perceived with becoming married. Civil partnerships at the moment offer almost exactly the same rights and responsibilities upon breakdown as a marriage.

In the absence of an improvement in cohabitant’s rights in law, civil partnerships could be a viable alternative available to those who find themselves somewhere between wanting to live with someone and wanting to be a ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, and offer another tier of legally recognised relationship which is much needed in our present system.

At the moment, the future of heterosexual civil partnerships remains uncertain in Parliament, but in the meantime, if you are currently in an unmarried relationship and would like advice on your property rights, finances, and rights concerning children upon breakdown then please do get in touch with our team.