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Populus research finds traditional marriage still holds sway over pre-nups

Populus finds, in research conducted on behalf of leading law firm Seddons, that despite recent changes to the marriage landscape in this country, pre-nuptial and cohabitation agreements are still not part of most couples’ thinking. According to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), fewer people are getting married overall, and the average age of marriage is rising1. This is perhaps unsurprising; however, contradicting conventional wisdom is the fact that the long term trend is towards fewer divorces. While there was a 5.8% increase in number of divorces between 2015 and 2016 (the latest year for which the ONS has published statistics), the 2016 figure is nevertheless down 30.1% since its peak in 2003. This decline moreover applies not only to the number of divorces but also to the divorce rate per 1,000 married couples.2

In a large part, the reason for this is cohabitation. However, with more couples cohabiting prior to or instead of marriage, the question of what to do in the event of a relationship ending is increasingly important. Populus examines couples’ attitudes to both pre-nuptial agreements prior to marriage, and cohabitation agreements made by couples who have not married.

Married Couples

Our research shows that, in spite of increasing coverage of high-profile pre-nuptial agreements in the media, such arrangements are gaining little traction among couples, with only 2% of married respondents having entered into a pre-nuptial agreement.

Pre-nuptial agreements, typically around division of property and spousal support arrangements following divorce, have been enforceable in UK law since 2010. However, the vast majority of couples shun them. A variety of reasons for this were cited, but the most common, given by over two in five (45%) of couples, was “being happy to keep to the traditional marriage system”. Meanwhile, 38% of couples said the thought of entering into a pre-nup had never crossed their mind.

Cohabiting Couples

Of those couples in a relationship but not yet married or in a civil partnership, 13% had discussed with their partner making a formal commitment by way of marriage or civil partnership with a prenup. One in five (22%) had discussed marriage or civil partnership, but without discussing a prenup.

The picture is equally striking among co-habiting couples, with only a minority (5%) of couples having formally agreed as to how they would split their belongings following a break up. While one in eight (13%) had informally discussed the subject, the vast majority, 72% had never discussed having a cohabitation agreement.

Deborah Jeff, Partner and Head of the Family Department at Seddons, commented on the findings:

“Despite the increasing public references to prenuptial agreements – particularly amongst high-net worth individuals – our research has found that for the vast majority of people pre-nups are not a part of their relationship planning.  There is a lack of understanding of how important a prenuptial agreement may be and its enforceability now in English law.  Provided the agreement is properly prepared, fair and all reasonable needs are met, they can be of magnetic importance and extremely persuasive if a marriage ends in divorce.  They also demonstrate to a court that from the outset of a marriage the parties had decided for themselves how their finances should be divided.

“What is worrying from our research, is the number of cohabiting couples that have not put in place a cohabitation agreement. This reinforces concerns that many unmarried couples who live together are unaware of their rights if the relationship breaks down, with some mistakenly relying on the myth of the common law marriage. With increasing numbers of couples living together before or instead of entering into marriage or civil partnership, it is likely we will see more disputes over the division of assets following separation.”

Nevertheless, however prudent these arrangements may well be, the question of whether they will ever become commonplace remains moot, as strong arguments against them continue to hold sway in peoples’ minds

Populus delivers insight into the attitudes the British public. It offers the chance to form successful strategies for a range of organisations, and, by getting to the heart of social and cultural issues, delivers greater in-depth understanding of the fields in which they operate. Find out more about our Solutions.


Populus interviewed a Nationally Representative sample of 2,087 UK adults aged 18+ from its online panel from the 19th-21st January 2018. Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. For more details go to www.populus.co.uk

[1] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2015 accessed 14th June 2018

[2]  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2016 accessed 14th June 2018

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