At the end of October, the Law Commission published a consultation paper, Intestacy and Family Provision Claims on Death. They are concerned that too many unmarried couples who are living together are unaware of the lack of rights and protection that results from not making a public marriage declaration.
They propose that couples who have had a child together or lived continuously as a couple for more than five years should have the same rights on intestacy as spouses. Also, that where a couple have lived together for more than two (but less than five) years up to the date of death, the survivor should be entitled to half of the share of the estate that a surviving spouse would have received.
A fresh analysis of data from the British Household Panel Survey by the Jubilee Centre (see Cohabitation in the 21st Century) shows that even if the Law Commission's proposals are accepted, they would still leave a large proportion of cohabitees with limited protection. For more than half of unmarried couples have been living together for less than two years (median length is 23 months) and less than one in four are still together after five years (22.8 per cent). So, even if accepted, the Law Commission's proposals would still leave a large proportion of cohabitees with limited protection.
Updated figures for the overall health of marriage in the country published this week by the Jubilee Centre reveals the nation's Marriage Index is now at a record low – down from 85 per cent in 1970 to less than 60 per cent today. This should sound as a warning that politicians need greater clarity and consistency in their messages over the public consequences of what are sometimes perceived simply to be private choices. Nevertheless, more than three in five couples who stop cohabiting decide to get married – less than two in five separate. So, marriage is still the preferred relationship choice for couples.
This makes perfect sense, as all the evidence shows that, on average, married people earn more, live longer, are happier and healthier, and even enjoy greater sexual satisfaction more often.
For instance, the latest studies, looking at the impact of nearly four decades of social change, confirm that 'married adults have made greater economic gains over the past four decades than unmarried adults.'
The most comprehensive review of the impact of marriage to date, a study looking at 67,000 people over eight years, found that 'the death rate for people who were unmarried was significantly higher than it was for those who were married and living with their spouses,' and 'Among the not married categories, having never been married was the strongest predictor of premature mortality.'
All this is good news for children too, as our analysis also shows that more than half (50.3 per cent) of cohabiting couples separate before their child's fifth birthday compared to less than one out of fifteen (6.3 per cent) married couples – cohabiting couples who get married after the birth of their child fare somewhat better, but even then one in four (25.0 per cent) have split by the time of their children's fifth birthday. And, as long-time family scholar David Popenoe has put it, 'Few propositions have more empirical support in the social sciences than this one: Compared to all other family forms, families headed by married, biological parents are best for children.'
Despite mixed messages from the Law Commission and the Government, which taxes people as individuals but assesses households for benefits, it seems most people still realise that marriage is best both for them and their loved ones – an unsurprising conclusion given the Biblical emphasis on the importance of families and long-term faithfulness.