Every year, the Office for National Statistics releases the divorce figures for England and Wales and last year, in 2016, that number increased by nearly 6 per cent on the year before. Most of those opposite-sex couples getting divorced were men aged between 45-49 and women in their thirties.
But, as the report points out, this is not a catastrophic failure of the whole institution of marriage, since there were actually fewer divorces in 2016 than in 2014 and far less than the peak in numbers in 2003.
According to Jacqueline Major a family partner and Head of Department, the figures were also affected by gay marriages and civil partnerships which have now entered the ‘divorce pool’ and account for some increase in the numbers.
“Cohabitation may be on the increase for heterosexual couples, but, overall, the number of people getting married has remained fairly constant since around 2000,” she says.
Why bother with marriage?
In Jacqueline’s view, despite the regular, often sensational press that accompanies celebrity and high-value divorce, marriage still makes sense to couples setting up home and thinking about children because, legally, the alternative remains risky.
“I’m not talking about people’s values or beliefs here, I’m speaking purely as a lawyer. If you are a couple with shared assets such as a house and have children together and you split, the same questions and potential problems arise whether you are married or cohabiting – how to divide everything up.
“However, only if you are married are both parties entitled by law to a share of the assets – such as a pension pot or property – even if these assets are in one person’s name only. This is certainly not the case with cohabitees, where there are no laws to protect each partner. People are left to argue over any claims to property by using property laws which are not clear cut and very expensive to pursue in terms of legal costs.
“In addition, only someone who has been married can seek financial support from an ex-spouse,” Jacqueline says.
Rightly or wrongly, marriage still protects the interests of both parties when it comes to dividing up assets, whereas people cohabiting may have no recourse to share the assets of someone they’ve lived with years.
“Unless the law is changed to cater for cohabiting couples – and this has been mooted for many years but never implemented – marriage is the only way legally to protect one’s financial position in a romantic partnership,” Jacqueline says.
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