Ministers warn of legal risks of 'living in sin'

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Cohabiting couples will be warned this week of the legal pitfalls of "living in sin" in a new government campaign.

Cohabiting couples will be warned this week of the legal pitfalls of "living in sin" in a new government campaign.

Ministers are launching a £100,000 publicity drive, using the slogan "Cohabit if you wish but beware of the risks", to dispel the widespread myth that lovers who live together have the same rights as husbands and wives.

They will urge the two million unmarried couples in Britain to ensure they do not lose their homes, access to children and pension rights if they split up. They will also call on judges to exercise underused powers to award lump-sum maintenance payments for children born out of wedlock. The campaign will be carried out by the Advice Services Alliance, an umbrella group that includes Relate and Citizens Advice.

The campaign comes as increasing numbers of men and women are rejecting the institution of marriage. Official figures show that one in six people now cohabit; the total number is expected to rise to three million by 2021.

Co-habitees are more likely to split up - they stay together on average between three and five years, compared with 12 years for married couples.

Legal experts predict that high-earning men will be more likely to be put off marriage after a Court of Appeal ruling this week that wives are entitled to a substantial share of their ex-husbands' future earnings.

In a controversial alimony settlement, judges ruled that Ray Parlour, the Arsenal midfielder, must pay his ex-wife Karen a third of his salary for the next four years on top of a £250,000 lump sum and the £1m family home.

Yesterday, Mrs Parlour said she had fought for the divorce settlement to secure the future of the couple's three children.

However, the future is not so promising for the thousands of unmarried women in relationships who mistakenly believe that as "common law wives" they have a claim on their boyfriend's earnings. Common law marriage has not existed for more than 250 years, although research shows that 56 per cent of people believe it still applies.

In fact, unmarried mothers have no legal right to maintenance if their relationship ends, and they are not entitled to their boyfriend's possessions if he dies without a will.

Britain lags behind other countries, including Canada and Australia, in legal protection for heterosexual couples who do not marry. New laws have been drawn up giving same-sex couples equal protection as husbands and wives. But the Government shelved plans to extend this to cohabiting couples, a move criticised by lawyers and equality campaigners.

Julia Cole, a Relate counsellor, said ignorance was "widespread" among cohabiting couples about their lack of rights. "There is a sense that if you don't want to get married, then hard luck. A lot of people enter cohabitation not fully understanding that they don't have the same rights."

Sandra Davis, head of family law at London solicitors Mishcon de Reya, said couples needed greater protection especially over property rights.

"Most women think that by setting up home without any form of agreement they are entitled to the same rights as married women," she said.