Yvonne Roberts: Happy ever after? I don't think so...

Suddenly, it's as if everyone is trying to tell common-law wives to look to their rights
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The Independent Online

Zsa Zsa Gabor, the ageless queen of glamour and numerous dire Hollywood B movies, always used to say, "Darlink, I am a wonderful housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I get to keep the house..." Well, not if she'd failed to slip a ring on her finger and take her matrimonial vows first, she wouldn't. As a common-law wife, she would have been denied the mansion, maintenance, or even a small slice of his pension - unless she was prepared to engage in a very expensive and probably not very fruitful fight in the courts.

Suddenly, it's as if everyone is trying to tell common-law wives to look to their rights. A common-law husband, at present, can walk away from 30 years of cohabitation and several children, still very much in pocket. (Of course, if the woman is the high earner with a strong streak of anti-maternalism, it might be she who chooses to do a bunk, leaving only her children and a vast walk-in wardrobe behind).

Five years ago, a survey revealed that 59 per cent of those polled believed incorrectly that common-law marriages came with similar rights to matrimony, covering property, assets, pensions, children and, crucially, at a time of soaring house prices, exemption from inheritance tax. Now, in spite of a significant increase in public information, that figure had risen to 66 per cent - either an example of the power of wishful thinking, or no thinking at all.

Now, the Government, facing off disapproval from the Church (still keen on the notion of "living in sin"), has funded what is called the "Living Together" campaign, set up by the not-for-profit legal and rights website advicenow. org.uk and the excellent relationship research and support organisation One Plus One. Living Together offers advice and guidance to cohabitees on how to protect their interests without actually saying "I do".

A cohabitation contract, for instance, may help in court. Without it, the court can only "give back" what the individuals put into the relationship at the outset. In most cases, that will probably amount to a Habitat sofa and a couple of thousand pounds. It won't, however, grant the right to a widow's pension if, for instance, your common-law partner is killed on service in Iraq. And it won't give you the right to make the decision to switch off the life-support machine of a partner. Cases of long-term cohabitees left with next to nothing after sharing a life in common with a partner chill the blood (but not to a sufficiently low temperature to persuade the country's 2 million cohabitees to book a visit to the vicar).

Rose Green, for instance, lived with John Pendlebury for 12 years, earning double her partner's wages, with the money going into the joint kitty. He died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, aged 56. She was not his next of kin, so as a common-law wife, she was not permitted to register his death. He had told her that he wanted to leave her his house, which had been her home, too, for years; but he had failed to change his will, in which he had allocated Green only half the property, the other half having been given to to his sisters. Green wrote to them expressing her late partner's wishes. "They wrote back and said, 'On your bike'."

Another, more exotic example, illustrates the precariousness of the cohabitee, even in these modern times. Glory Anne Clibbery lived in the Mayfair flat of millionaire racehorse trainer, Ivan Allan, who was based mainly in Hong Kong. They had been together for 15 years.

He told the court that she was never a cohabitee, only a mistress. "We share nothing. As unfeeling as it sounds, I paid her to be at my disposal, in particular for sexual activity." A lack of feeling, of course, is not exclusive to the common-law arena. It's often the norm when a marriage is reduced to ashes - but at least each partner may emerge with assets that reflect a little of the investment they each made in the preceding years.

Now, to try, yet again, to improve the self-preservation instinct of cohabitees, the weirdly named "Cut Out" campaign was launched yesterday - apparently a lateral attempt to educate the non-marrying kind by giving our language a spring clean.

"Cut Out" wants to eliminate the misleading phrase, "common-law marriage" from all official forms, newspapers, dictionaries and the airwaves and have it replaced by "cohabiting partner". That may help - a little. But what would make far more sense is simply to improve cohabitation rights, full stop. Civil partnerships already exist for same-sex couples - and Sir Elton John and David Furnish intend to walk up the (no doubt diamond-strewn) aisle in December.

The Law Commission is now reviewing the law as it applies to cohabiting couples. It tried once before and failed to come up with a solution. Several decades ago, it paid to live together - dual tax relief on mortgage, extra single parent's allowance. Both were axed, but, nevertheless, cohabitation - without the perks - continues to thrive. It's estimated that, by 2031, 4 million persons will cohabit in the UK.

Here, perhaps, lies the problem in the present public education campaign. It treats cohabitation as an experience akin to marriage without the orange blossom. In truth, it covers several different types of arrangements. Seven out of 10 young people now cohabit for at least two years, and 60 per cent of those arrangements will end in marriage. Those that don't may often be the result of two people drifting together - what's love got to do with it? One partner doesn't investigate his or her rights (or lack of them) because that would send a conscious signal to their perhaps less enthusiastic "other", that this is A Serious Relationship.

Another group, increasing in numbers, begin a relationship, have a child, and then cohabit, but the accent remains on the casual. Both these groups, and those who have lived together for years, require the law to take on the burden of protection. This should not be expected to rest on the actions of the individual - not least, for the wellbeing of the children involved.

In Australia, a cohabiting relationship that is two years old brings rights. One indirect advantage is that this may focus the minds of those who can't quite make up their minds should they stay or should they go. If they do stay, and the relationship fails - they pay.

Critics fear that improved cohabitation rights will undermine marriage, already at its lowest rate since the 1920s. Maybe, but at present, common-law unions are often insecure and short-lived. Perhaps, once they are given a legal anchor, long-term commitments outside marriage will also be given a boost - proving that there's more than one way to live happily ever after.