Protection for Unmarried Couples

Discussion on LinkedIn Family Law Forum, January 2013

New research by the ONS reinforces need for cohabitation law
New research conducted by the Office for National Statistics has revealed that the number of cohabiting couples has almost doubled since 1996, swelling from 1.5m to 2.9m over a period of 16 years. In addition, the total amount of children being brought up by unmarried cohabiting parents has also doubled and now stands at almost two million, while the number of married couples has fallen by 457,000 over the same period.

Venisha Shah, Family Law Partner at The Law House, London, United Kingdom

I believe that the doubling of unmarried couples (cohabiting) presents family solicitors with a problem that needs addressing with new legislation or legal rights that are currently lacking. The worst part is that often those affected are completely unaware that they do not have the same rights as married couples. I welcome your opinions on a subject that I have a great interest in!

Michael Howard:

The internet is widely used as the first port of call for many purposes. An internet check on ‘common law marriage’-even in Wikipedia-makes it clear that there is no such concept in England & Wales and that a couple living together has no automatic financial links, liabilities or responsibilities. Clearly information is available.The true situation also arises from time to time with a high profile case such as Jones v Kernott, yet in general terms the public still appears unaware of the situation and it is only when an individual actively seeks legal advice that the reality may become known. I’m not sure that there is a need for protective legislation. There are too many different scenarios to consider. Would there be Human Rights Act cases brought by someone whose relationship ends the wrong side of an arbitrary time limit in such a scenario? As things stand, either a couple opts into a legislative framework, called marriage or civil partnership, or they live together outside of it, i.e cohabitation. Perhaps the greatest need is for better information about the different types of relationship as part of secondary education. The use of pre-nuptial agreements is increasing and this has gradually come through public awareness on a need to protect assets without legislation, as much as through high profile case law. Perhaps the same will eventually happen with cohabitation.

Peter Singer
Michael, you (and no doubt many others) say: ‘As things stand, either a couple opts into a legislative framework, called marriage or civil partnership, or they live together outside of it, i.e [‘just’] cohabitation.’ The freedom of choice (which it is, if their choice is fully informed, but so often as you point out it isn’t) argument: let people decide which bed to make and then let them lie in it, even if for cohabitants it turns out to be Procrustean – not to stretch the point. But I suppose it depends from which end you start.

If you start from the proposition that an enduring (or a would-be enduring) relationship should not, in principle, impose any baggage burden on either party at its conclusion, then fine. And to be consistent shouldn’t you then advocate a free-cleanbreak-for-all (no financial responsibility either way) to replace the present post-divorce financial remedies which our laws make available?

If though you regard it as equitable that joining forces, living together, having children, making financial and non-financial contributions to the joint welfare of a partnership … should or at least could give rise to wealth-sharing or continuing maintenance dependency responsibilities to cope with financial or other frailty or imbalance upon separation: then why not adapt your legal system to cater for new (or more prevalent relationship) patterns as they emerge and secure (more or less) societal acceptance?

Ultimately maybe it is a question of fairness, like beauty that indefinable grail always dependent on whose eye is beholding.

Venisha Shah:
Michael – yes information is available but I think the problem stems from, as you allude to, a lack of awareness until legal help is necessary. Education would be welcome, however I still feel legislation to better reflect the ongoing trend against traditional marriage would do well to support the choices that the public are increasingly taking in regards to cohabitation.

Philip Marcus:
Allow me to agree with Michael, and to disagree in part, and with respect, with Venisha, who has raised an important issue.

It seems that the Courts of all countries have started to deal with the financial and other ramifications of couplehood without marriage, and the Common Law tradition provides all the tools necessary to develop an approach to a new problem.

In Israel the Courts (myself included) have used concepts of contract (express or implied), trusts (in particular constructive trusts), and reliance on representations made, analysing the conduct of the parties in relation to these and other concepts. But this is still a work in progress, and thus a rush to legislation is, in my view, premature.

I agree that what is needed is education, in the sense that people entering into relationships of this kind need to be aware that they are getting into largely uncharted territory, until the highest courts have fixed binding precedents, and that a way to avoid the rocks and shoals of litigation is to sign contracts, as early as possible in the relationship.

50/50 Custody Arrangements

Discussion on LinkedIn Family Law Forum, December 2012

Christina M.
Author, Divorce Coach, Parent Educator and Professional Speaker, Houston, Texas Area

I’m currently working with another parent on a legislative proposal that addresses 50/50 custody in Texas. I would love to talk with parents who have had positive or negative experience with this type of parenting arrangement. In short we’d like to know what makes 50/50 custody work and when is it a recipe for disaster.

Philip Marcus:
You might want to look at research by Dr Jennifer MacIntosh and others about legislation for equal time parenting in Australia. I understand that the prevailing view is that it failed to show benefits for fathers or mothers or children.


Parental Alienation

Discussion on LinkedIn Family Law Forum, November 2012

Shawn W., Chair, Social Media Committee at Collaborative Practice California (CPCAL)

It’s official, Parental Alienation Syndrome is not going to be included in the DSM-V. Frankly, I am relieved.

So it’s official.  The American Psychological Association has made it clear that Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) will not be included in the forthcoming DSM-V as a psychological disorder.  Frankly, I am relieved.

I have seen some very alienating behavior over the years in my family law practice.  It comes from both genders and every time it comes up, a child is harmed.  Sometimes it is driven by emotional issues such as addiction, abuse or even a personality disorder.  More often than not, however, it is just because someone is being mean by putting their poor emotionally defenseless child in the middle of their divorce.

I have had many potential clients call me wanting to launch a legal campaign in family court based on PAS.  I try to explain that the science is considered unreliable.  However, these parents often feel so convinced that they are victims of PAS that they won’t hear anything else.  When I start to explain that PAS is not a recognized psychological disorder, I am quickly written off.

Philip Marcus:
The January 2010 Issue of the Family Court Review (Volume 48 No 1) contained some important insights into Contact Refusal, including a more nuanced approach to the issue than defining all cases as resulting from alienation of the child by one parent against the other. This reflects the large variety of typologies encountered by judges. One especially important article, by Steven Friedlander and Marjorie Gans Walters, “When a Child Rejects a Parent: Tailoring the Intervention to Fit the Problem”, (op. cit., p. 98) I found especially useful in determining cases and deciding on management and treatment options.

It may well be that the decision to exclude PAS from DSM was motivated by this approach – one size does not fit all. But the mere fact of exclusion does not lead to the conclusion that the phenomenon of Contact Refusal does not exist, or that in some or many cases one parent is primarily responsible. So treatment is essential, and the challenge is to provide treatment within the financial capacity of the funders – who may be public authorities, charities or the parents themselves.