‘Don’t have children until you are ready to marry says Judge.’ So runs the headline in the Telegraph today reporting the comments of Sir Paul Coleman. Now Mr Justice Coleman, who sits in the High Court as a senior family Judge and has done for several decades, seems to be making one of those slightly out of touch proclamations that senior Judges make from time to time. And the fact that he has set up the Marriage Foundation think tank would suggest he does have a bit of an axe to grind.
However, amongst Sir Paul’s liberal-baiting there is an interesting observation; he is quoted as saying that there is a “high level of ignorance” in the political establishment about the benefits of marriage. He goes on to say he did not think politicians and other authority figures were “afraid” to speak in favour of marriage, but that many of them believed marriage and cohabitation were equivalent.
And I fear that at the heart of this is a dangerous and surprisingly difficult to kill, myth – the myth of the common law marriage.
“But we’ve lived together for more than six months – aren’t we common law man and wife or something?” Time after time I have had to break the news to people from all walks of life that there is no such thing. In fact that this hasn’t been true since 1753 or so, and yet a recent study showed that more than half of the population continues to believe it exists. That’s got to be more than believe in Nessie, Bigfoot and alien abduction combined!
The harsh truth is that living with someone does not by itself give any rights to you or to your partner, and certainly no rights to financial support, even where you have children involved.
There are things that can be done to combat the consequences of finding this out too late, such as making a Living Together Agreement with your partner, or at least making wills so that children, and the parent who will look after them, will not be left wanting. Of course you will have certain rights to the home you live in if you own it jointly with your partner, and it is possible to get Child Maintenance should you have children and separate.
It is, however, an inescapable fact that the most effective way to get the fullest financial protection and support for you or your children is to marry. Sir Paul is right then, though perhaps for the wrong reasons.
We need fact not fiction. So let’s take the myth out of it all – repeat after me:
There is no such thing as common law man and wife; there is no such thing as common law man and wife…