Knowledge Hub | Articles

02 October 2018

All-time low divorce rate reveals changing face of breaking up

Sarah Harding, Senior Associate in our family practice group, explains that an increase in couples choosing to cohabit has led to fewer marriages and an all-time low divorce rate.

Statistics recently reported by the Office of National Statistics show that the rate of divorce among opposite-sex couples is at its lowest since 1973 and that in 2017, there was a 4.9% fall in the number of divorces among opposite sex-couples, as compared to 2016.

The report speculates that this reduction in divorce is likely to be because couples are increasingly choosing to cohabit rather than marry or because couples are choosing to marry later in life.   Although these statistics are very interesting, couples who choose to cohabit rather than marry must give careful consideration as to what will happen in the event of their relationship breakdown, particularly in relation to their financial position.  Whilst there is a detailed statutory regime in place with regard to distribution of matrimonial assets in the event of a divorce, no similar regime currently exists for cohabiting couples.

According to a Resolution survey released in November 2017, over a third of people believe that unmarried couples who have lived together for more than two years benefit from a regime of “common law marriage”. In fact, there is no such thing, and so cohabitees who separate have far fewer rights than spouses who divorce.  This may mean that a cohabitee may end up significantly worse off financially when compared with married person in similar circumstances.  Therefore, to avoid any disharmony at a later stage, a cohabiting couple may wish to enter into a cohabitation agreement to set out what will happen with respect to their finances should their relationship break down.

In contrast to opposite-sex couples, the number of divorces among same-sex couples more than tripled in 2017 to 338 divorces, up from 112 in 2016. As more time passes since same-sex couples were given the right to marry by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, we can expect these numbers to rise further.  It must also be noted that the government may be planning to bring in a new ‘no-fault divorce’ law, which is also likely to see divorce numbers rise.

The ONS report also reveals that for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, 46.4% of divorce petitions were based on the “unreasonable behaviour” of the respondent, which may come as a surprising statistic.  Of the petitions issued on the fact of two years separation (26.7%) or five years separation (15.4%), it is possible that a large number may be issued by divorcing couples who have simply agreed matters between themselves, rather than instruct a lawyer. In these circumstances however, it is vital those couples obtain some legal advice as it is essential that they get a financial order from the court ensuring that any future financial claims are dismissed.  This is something which couples seeking a “quickie” divorce often fail to do.

For advice on any of these matters, please contact our family team by emailing or calling 01753 279046.

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