According to the Office for National Statistics, the percentage of cohabiting couples living with children (including both heterosexual and same sex couples) increased from 7% in 1996 to 15% by 2016. Bearing in mind that these figures do not even begin to account for couples living together without children, it is clear that cohabitees represent a significant and fast-growing section of society.

Unfortunately, the law has been pretty tardy in coming to recognise this and to allow for the rights of such couples. Far from being “common law spouses” – there is, in fact, no legal basis for such a concept – the adults in such unions are considered to be legally distinct and separate entities and as a consequence, often find their pension, inheritance, financial and property rights are seriously undervalued.

However, the law is finding it increasingly difficult to fight against the tides of change; cohabitation is nowadays a social norm and the law needs to shift significantly to reflect this. Cohabitees might just be able to allow themselves a little optimism regarding the future.

The most recent illustration of the law’s move towards recognising the rights of cohabitees came with the case of Denise Brewster, a woman from Northern Ireland who, in a Supreme Court decision made on February 8th 2017, won the right to receive benefit from her deceased partner’s occupational pension scheme. Her legal action followed the tragically sudden and premature death of her partner of seven years, just two days after the two had become engaged.

Ms Brewster cited that she had been unlawfully discriminated against and the judgement finally brought Northern Ireland in line with England, Wales and Scotland in regard to pension rights for bereaved cohabitees.

The UK’s former pensions minister Sir Steve Webb, echoed the views of those working within family law when he described the situation as “totally unacceptable”. He added that the issue “needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency”.

“We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today, and not the world of 50 years ago,” he said.

In practical terms the ruling means that cohabitees now have rights to their partner’s pensions on death, giving them parity with married couples. However, it is important to remember that this decision does not redress inequalities in numerous other areas of the law. This is because cohabitation still does not alter a couple’s legal status in the way that a marriage or civil partnership does.

In the realms of family law, it is hoped that this judgement will provide significant impetus for the advancement of tax, inheritance and property rights across the UK for the more than six million cohabiting couples who reside here and end the apparent discrimination and penalties which have occurred in the past.

Family Law Services at the Wellers Law Group

For more information about any of the issues raised above, call our Family Law Services team on 01483 284567 for our Surrey team or 020 8464 4242 to talk to the Bromley team today to arrange an initial fixed fee interview, or email