Couples who never tied the knot will be bound by law
Cohabiting partners need to take an interest in their legal rights, because they are about to change, writes Roisin Burke
Madonna's boyfriend Jesus Luz recently said he considers himself to be married to the pop icon, and a father figure to her children.
That may be a romantic pronouncement, but it's the kind of remark that can strike fear in the heart of a wealth-conscious megastar.
In the 1970s, actor Lee Marvin made legal history when his ex-girlfriend Michelle Triola successfully sued him over property rights, and the term 'palimony' was coined for the first time. The case established that you didn't have to be married to be pursued to provide for an ex. Big names such as Martina Navratilova, Clint Eastwood, Tim Burton, Hugh Hefner and Rod Stewart have all been hit by multi-million euro maintenance claims.
Eastwood once said he had been scarred by his experience. "It makes you defensive. Nowadays it seems like everything's designed (so) that you'd have to have a lawyer with you to just go out on a single date."
It was a 13-year relationship rather than a single date that led to Eastwood's out-of-court financial settlement with ex-girlfriend Sondra Locke, but the point is, Locke didn't have to be married to him to have financial rights when they broke up.
The break-up travails of Hollywood millionaires might seem a world away from Irish legal reality, but maybe not for much longer. Major legal changes due to be introduced this year have huge financial implications for couples living together long term.
The Civil Partnership Bill means a partner can look for some 'divorce style' maintenance and property rights in the event of a break-up. Justice Minister Dermot Ahern wants to see the bill enacted before the summer, and legal experts think it's likely to happen before the end of the year at the latest.
"A lot of people don't get married because they don't want to get involved in the split up of assets, but that's exactly what's going to happen," said family law solicitor Marion Campbell of the impending legislation.
"This is bigger than the divorce legislation; the implications are huge, yet a lot of the general public who could be affected by it think it has nothing to do with them."
While the bill's main provision, the 'civil partnership' aspect, is to give a legal footing to same-sex relationships, it also provides for important legal redress for both heterosexual and gay cohabiting couples.
Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family unit in the State, so the bill's contents affect thousands of people. More than one in ten, or 120,000, couples choose to live together rather than get married, and that figure is rising.
A straw poll of cohabiting couples for this piece revealed that most were only dimly aware of the impending law change, and not aware of the detail of what it might mean for them. Most thought it was something that was only relevant to gay couples, which is far from the case.
"I guarantee you if you did a vox pop and asked couples if a woman and a man who had lived together for 12 years had financial rights, they would say 'yes, of course'," said Muriel Walls, a family law partner with legal firm McCann FitzGerald, "but that's not the situation at the moment."
Most couples tend not to take an interest in their financial and legal position until the relationship is in trouble.