Proportion of married people in England and Wales falls below 50% for first time

The proportion of people aged 16 or older in England and Wales who are married or in a civil partnership has fallen below 50% for the first time.

The figure dropped to 49.7% in 2021 and then to 49.4% in 2022, according to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This was down from 51.2% a decade earlier in 2012.

The previous release on population estimates by marital status and living arrangements across the two nations covered estimates for 2020, so Thursday’s release is the first showing figures for 2021 and last year.

The ONS said comparable records go back to 2002.

Other data going back to 1972, while not directly comparable, also shows the percentage of married people had never dropped below 50%.

Couples living together but not in a marriage or civil partnership increased to more than a fifth – from 19.7% in 2012 to 22.7% in 2022 – equivalent to 5.4 million people in 2012 and 6.8 million people in 2022.

The statistics suggested laws in this area must be updated and were “crying out for reform”, legal experts said.

David Lillywhite, a partner at Burgess Mee family law, said: “Unfortunately, many couples still believe that simply by living with their partner they will automatically be entitled to a share of the other’s wealth or receive financial support from them when the relationship breaks down. The reality is very different and can often come as something of a shock.

“This area of law is crying out for reform, which could include the ability for cohabitees to apply for maintenance for a limited period to adjust for the loss of financial support; an opt-out right for eligible cohabitees for financial remedy orders like married couples and civil partners; and a right for cohabitees to inherit under the intestacy rules and be treated the same way as married couples for tax purposes.”

A review of laws governing how a couple’s finances are divided after a divorce was announced last year, with the government enlisting the Law Commission to analyse how the 50-year-old laws work in practice.

Sital Fontenelle, head of Kingsley Napley’s family and divorce practice, said protections for cohabitants, who currently have “limited rights”, must also be considered.

She said: “It’s all very well to have started a review of the Matrimonial Causes Act and how finances are divided between separating spouses on divorce, but if marriage is going out of fashion, then the rights of cohabitees and greater protection for their families should be addressed. If marriage is no longer the default for modern families, our laws should be updated to reflect that.”

While people in civil partnerships still account for a small proportion of those in a legal partnership, estimates for civil partnerships have almost doubled over the last decade, from 120,000 in 2012 to 222,000 in 2022, the ONS said.

This period covers the introduction of opposite-sex civil partnerships from the end of 2019.

Same-sex marriages have increased, with the estimated number of people in these marriages at 167,000 in 2022, up from 26,000 in 2015. Of these, males account for about six in 10 (61.2%), while females account for about four in 10 (38.8%).

Overall, 99.3% of married people were married to someone of the opposite sex.

More than six in 10 (61.3%) of the population aged 16 and over were either living with a legal partner or cohabiting.

Just over a quarter (27.6%) of 16- to 29-year-olds lived in a couple in 2022 compared with more than three-quarters (78.0%) of 40 to 44-year-olds.

People aged 70 and over accounted for almost a fifth (18.3%) of the population who were married or in a civil partnership in 2022 – up from 15.1% in 2012.

Those aged under 30 accounted for 3.2%, down from 4.9% in 2012.

The ONS said the figures reflected an ageing married or civil partnered population over the past decade.