Those who have chosen to say 'I do' hold all the aces financially if a relationship doesn't last for life, reports Jane Hall
BREAKING up is famously "hard to do", thanks to the Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield hit.
And never is this more true than for couples who live together.
You have shared your lives, your space, your money and your belongings for so long, it is probably hard to recall who owns what.
To make matters worse, you have to deal with all the property and financial implications yourselves, with not so much as a divorce court to help you.
You are left having to agree who gets to keep the home, the cat, the TV, the CD collection - and perhaps even the children - at a time when you may be finding it impossible to agree on anything at all.
It is ironic that many people avoid the big-white-dress, life-long commitment thing thinking that if they split up, they can avoid the rigmarole of divorce, only to find when they do go their separate ways that a formal process might have been easier.
This may be the anything-goes 21st century where no one raises an eyebrow any more if an unmarried couple decide to live together, but it is those who have chosen to say "I do" who still hold all the aces when things don't work out.
In fact, one lawyer has candidly pointed out that perhaps the best reason to get married is if you are going to split up.
Yet many couples who live together but are not married mistakenly believe they share most, if not all, of the rights of husbands and wives.
Recent research from the Living Together Campaign found that out of 1,000 people questioned, 600 thought "common law marriage" had a legal status in England and Wales.
They are wrong.
"Regardless of how long you have lived together, you have very few rights," say the organisers of the campaign, which was launched last year with Government funding to help increase awareness of the legal issues that affect those who cohabit rather than marry.
The campaign has been triggered by the rising number of people who now choose to live together.
In 1970 there were 340,000 first nuptials, but by 2002 this figure had dropped to just 150,000. But there are now four million couples cohabiting and the number is expected to reach six million by 2021.
Forty per cent of children are now born out of wedlock.
There are concerns that many cohabitees are unaware that, compared to married couples, there are major differences in their status regarding property rights, children, inheritance, taxes, separation and pensions.
Cohabiting women are financially much more vulnerable than men if a relationship ends, particularly if they have children.
At the same time, it may come as a shock to fathers of children born before December 2003 to discover they are not auto-matically entitled to a say in the way their offspring are raised.
If a partner dies, the other may not inherit the home they have shared unless they are listed with the Land Registry as "beneficial joint tenants".
Neither can couples who are not married inherit from each other unless there is a will.
In the worst cases, the surviving partner could lose their home and the deceased's relatives or even the taxman could have first claim on any savings and possessions.
Unmarried couples lose out in some areas of taxation as well.
They are unable to claim some exemptions that apply to both capital gains and inheritance taxes, as well as stamp duty - the much despised and ancient levy everyone has to pay when they buy a home worth more than £60,000.
As for pensions, there is no automatic right to benefit from a partner's private scheme.
And the courts have no power to transfer capital assets between partners or order maintenance payments if unmarried relation-ships break down, no matter how long people have been together.
So, from a woman's perspective, you can live with a man for 25 years, change your name by deed poll, bear his children and give up your job to look after them, but if you don't marry your partner you will have no financial claim against him.
The same goes for the man - if he does not marry, he will have no financial claim if the relationship ends.
Although you may not be able to safeguard against a broken heart, there are measures you can take, however, to safeguard your financial future if you are living with your partner, one being to make a so-called "living together agreement".
The forms - similar to the pre-nuptial contracts much loved by Hollywood stars like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones - are backed by the Government, and can be downloaded from the advicenow.org.uk website, and taken to a lawyer so the details can be completed.
This document can help ensure a fair division of possessions and prescribe how other issues will be handled if a relationship breaks down.
They can also be useful while cohabitation continues, by recording facts such as who should pay what towards food bills and other domestic living expenses. In addition to partners, the agreements can be made by people living together in a platonic relationship or with a family member.
Martin Loxley, head of the family team at national firm Irwin Mitchell solicitors, describes the agreements as "a step forward in a country where on a wide range of fronts - including financial matters such as maintenance and pensions, property questions, rights over children and inheritance issues - protection for unmarried partners can be vastly inferior to that of husbands and wives."
Martin says the agreements can be useful evidence of a common intention to split the proceeds from a home sale, for example, as unlike married people in a divorce, cohabitees do not have an automatic right to claim a half share of these.
They can also set out who any children will live with if their parents separate.
"While the idea of the agree-ments doesn't seem romantic, there is no romance in splitting up and squabbling over who owns what.
"Anything that helps couples develop a shared understanding of what will happen if their relationship ends has to be a positive step, strange though that might sound."
But Martin acknowledges that although the agreements may be taken into account by courts if romances hit the rocks, they are not legally enforceable.
"This is probably the reason the agreements have not been that popular so far. It's true that the courts will not let people sign away legal rights, which is one reason the parties need to consult their own solicitors when making the agreements - they will need advice on the law relating to very clause.
"Consulting lawyers will also help to show a court that the partners tend the agreement to be binding.
"Although there are no guarantees, if they've taken these steps the courts will generally follow an agreement if it produces a fair result for both partners and they were honest with each other about financial and other matters when it was developed."