Study suggests married parents create no advantage for children over cohabiting couples

10 August 2011

The status quo of the family unit and the added stability and benefits that a married couple can give their children has been further called into question by a study that has just been published.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that the presence of marriage between parents is itself not a factor that affects a child’s cognitive development, but other socio-economic factors such as the education levels of the parents and even grandparents can be. It followed that unmarried or cohabiting parents were less likely to have attained any higher or further education. This might filter down to affect their children, but the absence of marriage itself could not be seen to be a contributing variable to a child's development. Conversely, it was found that those who did marry were more likely to come from more advantaged backgrounds.
The present government has expressed a desire to support marriage through the tax system by giving tax breaks to those who marry. This, in turn was due to the belief that marriage creates a more stable background for children who will then achieve more in life and be less likely to become reliant on the State for support. These statistics call that rationale into question.
The findings clearly make generalisations based on averages and cannot account for nuances in a family’s background. The report makes clear that factors wider than just marriage affect the results. But as cohabiting becomes a more common choice for couples, and with greater legal protection afforded to them in the event that the relationship ends, perhaps in future there will be a much wider section of society choosing to eschew marriage. In future, it will be much harder to distinguish between children from married and unmarried parents on the basis of their development and success in life.
Those who cohabit may not initially be aware of the added protection that the law affords them. It may not be until the relationship goes wrong, or on the death of one partner, that it becomes necessary for them to identify what their rights are, particularly in relation to property rights. The Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 finally gave couples who live together unmarried protection in certain circumstances. If a couple live together as if they were married, or in a civil partnership, then a court will look at the length of cohabitation, the nature of the relationship and any financial arrangements that have been put in place.
For example, household goods acquired whilst cohabiting would be equally shared, except for those acquired through a gift or a bequest in a will from a third party. Also excluded are money, vehicles and domestic pets. However, there is no presumption of joint ownership of heritable property, such as a house or flat.
When it comes to the family home, protection is also provided by the Matrimonial Homes (Family Protection) (Scotland) Act 1981 and if only one partner is entitled to the house, the other can apply for occupancy rights. If the property is jointly owned, this would not be necessary. And in the event of cohabitation ending, an application can be made to the court for financial support.
Cohabiting couples now have much of the same safeguards that married couples expect so it is easy to see attitudes to marriage and non-traditional family structures continuing to evolve in the future.

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