Monday, 19 May 2008

I Now Pronounce You Inadvertent Husband and Wife

I was reading today on the BBC website, that 70% of people aged 20-35 and 79% of people living together hoped to get married. Despite social acceptance of unmarried couples, in fact the large majority of people who are probably in a position to find a spouse want to marry them. The main thing preventing them is the cost, with the average wedding in the UK costs £14,000 (€17,640; US$27,440) now, more than an average car (ten times what I paid for my last car), that is no surprise. The website did not say whether the survey question same-sex couples now that they can effectively marry though in the UK for the sake of old fashioned people it is called a civil partnership. I know at one time some gay men I knew saw marriage as the realm of the heterosexual and something they should not aspire to, but now that they can do it, it seems that many welcome the opportunity to sort things out legally in terms of their partner, for example in terms of dividing up property when they split, who inherits in the case of no will and things such as requests to turn off a life-support machine, rather than in the past this falling into the hands of quite often distant blood relatives. So, despite all the stuff about this being a promiscuous and thus immoral society, in fact, as for millenia, most people want a long-term established relationship.

Of course you can find yourself inadvertently in a marriage as I did this week. I do not mean in the sense of the current movie 'What Happens in Vegas' (2008) in that you wake up after a drunken night to find you have married someone. Rather, that in the UK under tighter 'common law' rules, if you live with another adult for two years you become their common law husband/wife. I assume it is two years because that rules out students who usually only share a house for one academic year. The woman who lives in my house despite her partial designation as my housekeeper and her other part as a business owner, is now apparently my common-law wife. Presumably that makes her son my common-law step son. I can understand that the law wants to give protection especially to women and children who come to depend on men who then disappear, but it is pretty insidious that you can sit there and become someone's husband/wife. In particular 'common law' is a pretty ugly term for people of my generation as in the news it used to often talk about men as having killed or assaulted their 'common law wife', when it would be better to say 'girlfriend', though I suppose the former term may have indicated that the man's access to the woman in question was easier as a girlfriend could live apart.

There do seem to be some difficulties with this common law arrangement. Putting aside that you miss out on a nice wedding and gifts, what happens if there are more than two people in the house. If I have a common law wife but then am actually having a relationship with a woman living elsewhere do I become a common-law adulterer? In the past elderly brothers and sisters often lived together, what does that mean now they get encompassed by this blunt rule? If I had two women in my house that I lived with for more than two years would I automatically become a common-law bigamist? What if they were a lesbian couple but not been through a civil ceremony, would one or other of them still be considered my common-law wife even though they actually wanted to be with each other. What if I happened to have another man in the house, would he be deemed my common-law civil partner even if I am not gay?

I suppose these rules come about to stop people claiming to be single parents and claiming benefit and then in fact being supported by someone else. When a civil servant I had a friend who had got in this position when his housemate had become redundant and they had to agree to having their house inspected, looking at things like beds, bedding, toothbrushes, etc. to verify that they were not a couple. It was like the reverse of those green card marriage scams in the USA, as in the movie 'Green Card' (1990) in which immigration inspectors who think the couple are simiply in a marriage of convenience to secure immigration rights into the USA question the couple extensively and search their house in order to check if it is actually a love match.

The trouble is, in most house shares, you have to share the bills, so become economically entwined even if you are not emotionally connected. As house prices and rents rise so fast in the UK it will be far more common for all kinds of combinations of people to live together and it is rather crude of the state to simply match them off in couples, especially as 6 million people in the UK live alone and many others would probably want to, but for financial reasons have to share. So, here is a warning, keep a careful check of when you move into a house share and make sure you or the other person moves out before two years are passed otherwise you may find yourself with a common-law wife/husband or possibly even more startling, a common-law lesbian/gay civil partner you never asked for.

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