A Couple of Problems
Jenni Murray, presenter of the long-running BBC radio programme 'Women's Hour', and one of Britain's more prominent advocates of female independence, very reluctantly got married in 2003. Murray bought into an institution she regards as patriarchal in order to protect her partner of more than 20 years from paying a huge sum in inheritance tax, and losing their home, in case she died before him. (Married couples do not pay inheritance tax on a house inherited from their spouse in the event that one of them dies.)
Given the existing legal and fiscal situation, Murray felt marriage was the only option. With reference to her husband and sons, she said: "If I went, they would lose the family home. There was no way round it."
But recently she was quoted as saying, "Marriage is a patriarchal institution that does not help women. There should be a heterosexual partnership agreement that does not carry the baggage that marriage carries." Murray is part of a campaign for legally recognised civil partnership.
The Civil Partnership Act comes into force in December 2005. In introducing the Act, Britain will join nine other European Union countries and some states in the US and Australia in adopting legally recognised civil partnership registration. However, the Act only refers to same-sex couples.
The left-leaning Observer newspaper has taken up the cause of those who do not wish to marry and is campaigning for the same rights for cohabiting heterosexual couples as married couples enjoy and as same-sex couples will be able to secure once the Act comes into force.
When first proposed, the Civil Partnership Act was drafted to include heterosexuals; but the government has stood out against this on the grounds heterosexuals can opt for marriage.
As part of the Observer's campaign, Labour Member of Parliament Harry Barnes in February (2005) tabled an early day motion on Equal Treatment on Inheritance Taxes. (An early day motion is a British parliamentary procedure for raising an issue with a view to eliciting support from other MPs. Twenty-seven MPs, including Barnes, have signed the motion.)
"I prefer marriage but other people prefer civil partnership and others are gay. The state should treat such decisions and arrangements with respect and equality in the tax system. It would be ridiculous if two of the three main ways for people who wish to live together are treated equally but the other option is punished. I very much hope that the government sees this as a basic anomaly and corrects it forthwith," said Barnes.
His early day motion, tabled on February 21, said: "That this House strongly endorses the Observer newspaper's campaign to change the law on inheritance tax so that cohabiting heterosexual couples enjoy equal tax liabilities and burdens as same-sex couples and married heterosexual couples."
It noted: "Rising property prices are making more people exposed to potential inheritance tax bills and unmarried partners are particularly vulnerable because of the way the rules work." And it called on the government "to take urgent action to remedy this unfair anomaly in the tax system".
The 2001 Census found there were just over 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales compared with more than 10 million married couples. According to figures compiled for the Observer by Halifax, a building society, up to 200,000 cohabiting couples could be at risk of having to pay hefty inheritance tax bills and in the worst cases, lose their homes if one of them dies.
Inheritance tax is not the only issue at stake and it is not only the relatively well off who have an interest in changing the law. There are other rights that are automatic for married couples, but which are far from automatic for those cohabiting.
The Citzens Advice Bureau (CAB), a charity that advises Britons on their rights, explains on its website that unmarried mothers have sole responsibility for their child unless they register the birth of the child together with the child's father; make a formal agreement with the father about the child; or there is a court order in favour of the father.
In contrast, married parents have joint parental responsibility that continues until the child is 18 years old. This is the case even if the parents separate or divorce. The vagueness of cohabitation is potentially a problem for both mothers and fathers if their relationship fails, as unmarried mothers have no guarantee of financial support and fathers face a thorny legal battle for contact with their children.
Relate, Britain's largest provider of relationship counselling, does not have a formal stance on equal rights for heterosexual couples who are not married, saying only that it applauds "commitment and stability within relationships, however it is expressed" and that it welcomes the Civil Partnership Act as recognition of the commitment of same-sex couples to one another.
One of Relate's counsellors, Christine Northam, says cohabitation can add to the pressures when a relationship comes under strain and not just because of financial or legal vagaries. "Problems can be aggravated by the rest of the family's approach towards cohabiting," she said. But when it comes to counselling, her experience is that the process is virtually the same as helping married couples and the couples often believe they are as good as married. "A lot of people just fall into cohabitation without necessarily thinking about it. They feel they are in a committed relationship," she said.
The problem is the law has yet to fully acknowledge that and many Britons have yet to wake up to the precariousness of their situation.
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