LIKE MANY WOMEN, Laura is desperate to have children. But she recently discovered she couldn't conceive naturally because her fallopian tubes didn't work properly. According to doctors at Queen Mary Hospital, her only chance was in- vitro fertilisation. 'I called my partner and he said: 'Let's go for it',' Laura says. But her hopes were short-lived. 'The doctor asked me a few questions about my partner, and when she found out that we weren't married she looked at me as if I was a criminal and said: 'We only deal with married couples'.' Laura's dream of having children ended there. 'I was flabbergasted. I never thought one had to sign a marriage certificate in order to have children,' she says. 'Certainly that's not the case for couples who don't have fertility problems.' Many people in de facto relationships assume that, with Hong Kong's common law tradition, they are accorded a measure of protection. But lawyers warn that's a big mistake. Discrimination on the grounds of marital status is an offence in Hong Kong. Under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, 'direct discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another person ... with a different marital status'. Nevertheless, unmarried couples - heterosexual or homosexual - aren't recognised under the law. In some situations this leads to mere inconveniences, but in others it can mean heartbreak. Besides being denied fertility treatment, they cannot claim a housing allowance (unless they have a child). Nor are they eligible for home loan interest deductions or disabled dependant allowances. One partner cannot give consent for emergency medical treatment on behalf of the other; nor can they make automatic provisions for each other in insurance and pension matters. And should the relationship break down or a partner die, the other has no inheritance rights, lawyers say. 'Let's assume you have been living with your boyfriend for 10 years and you have no will,' says Sharon Ser, a partner at legal firm Hampton, Winter and Glynn. 'If he has a heart attack and dies, everything goes to his mum.' Or, if you haven't been working and he refuses to provide support after you separate, there's no avenue in the courts, she says. The only cases where one partner can claim from the other is if they can prove they were totally dependant on the other half. 'With inheritance, if a woman can be seen to be dependant on that person who dies and hasn't made any provisions in his will, she can make claims on this estate,' says Catherine K.G. Por, a partner at Stevenson, Wong & Co. 'The key is to be wholly or substantially maintained.' One note of comfort for unmarried couples with children is that, whatever happens, the child's rights are always protected under Hong Kong law. Some laws, such as the hotly debated Domestic Violence Ordinance, make certain provisions for common law partners. But in most cases, the definition of a 'family member' is limited to a spouse or blood relation. With insurance cover, the lack of recognition of unmarried couples causes annoying, if avoidable, problems. 'In Hong Kong, the insurers will not recognise common law marriages,' says Christian Moore of online insurance firm Kwiksure.com. 'People assume their belongings are covered. But you need to make it explicitly clear that your partner is covered by this in the beginning.' Graphic designer Shaun Horrocks recently found this out, after the home he shares with his girlfriend of 14 years was burgled. When his girlfriend took out household insurance with HSBC in 1995, she asked the bank if she should put both their names on the policy. She was told it wasn't necessary. After the break-in, Horrocks filed a police report and his girlfriend called the bank. The problem was that the surname on the police statement was different from that on the insurance contract. The bank said it would pay only half the value of the stolen items. Horrocks' belongings, which included several pieces of expensive equipment such as mountain bikes, weren't protected. Yet his possessions would have been covered if they were married. To its credit, the bank agreed (after many heated telephone calls) to pay the insurance in full. But it made clear that this shouldn't be regarded as the norm. HSBC says it doesn't recognise common law marriages. No amount of heated wrangling has enabled Yeo Wai-wai to provide for her partner under her company's Mandatory Provident Fund scheme, although her employers are happy to oblige. Yeo is a lesbian, but this isn't a gay issue. Her situation wouldn't be any better if she were heterosexual. 'We're using Manulife for our MPF and we can't put [my girlfriend] on because she isn't a direct relative or spouse,' says Yeo, who works for a design company. 'My bosses know about my status with my girlfriend and are very willing to help, but they can't because of the agent's policy.' A Manulife spokesman says the company is acting within the law, which defines claimants as a spouse or blood relations. Yeo can get around that by making a specific will, he says. 'If there is no will, the one who can claim depends on the law. It's not defined by us.' More progressive companies have used their clout to force insurers to provide more flexible terms. At consulting firm Watson Wyatt, human resources specialist Bob Charles estimates that only 5 per cent of companies in Hong Kong make MPF provisions for employees' unmarried partners, and these are mostly US multinationals. 'The situation isn't favourable to unmarried partners,' he says. 'If the member dies, the trustee has to pay the benefit to the personal representative who is defined in legislation as spouse; if not spouse, children; if not children, parents; if not parents, then brother or sister. There isn't any discretion available to the trustee on that.' So what can unmarried couples do to protect themselves and each other? Get a will or cohabiting agreement, lawyers say. Couples should decide from the outset what belongs to whom, what can be claimed if there's a breakdown, and what can be inherited in the case of death. 'Couples can draw up a cohabiting agreement, which can clarify issues,' says Ser. Although the courts may not regard the document as being fully binding, it would be 'highly persuasive'. There are times, though, when a will simply won't help. When Yeo rushed to the hospital after her girlfriend was hurt in a car accident a few years ago, she didn't expect to have to fight to see her. 'The nurses asked me to get out of the ward,' Yeo says. 'I had a fight with about three or four different nurses and doctors before they allowed me to be there. But if I hadn't been so insistent they would have kicked me out.' Despite such cases, the Equal Opportunities Commission says its hands are tied. The commission can't protect the rights of unmarried couples when the law doesn't recognise their status, officials say. 'Issues pertaining to matrimonial law should first be resolved before issues under our anti-discrimination laws can be looked into,' says spokeswoman Mariana Law. According to a government survey last year, about 3.5 million of 5.9 million people are married. About 1.86 million have never married and more than half a million are widowed, divorced or separated. Even if only a third of these 2.4 million people are in unmarried relationships, that should be enough to get the government's attention. 'It does seem to be a serious omission,' says Ser, commenting on the lack of recognition of de facto partnerships. 'If the law is to change, there has to be some criteria laid down recognising that an unmarried couple should be given the same protection as a married couple. And you would then have to recognise same-sex couples. It's a fundamental change in thinking.' None of this is any comfort to Laura. She used to be married to a drug addict, and she can't believe that she would have been considered more suitable for fertility treatment then. But she says getting married isn't an option. 'I know how much my partner wants children,' she says. 'But I don't want to tie him down knowing that my chances of conceiving are slim. I had thought that if I got pregnant, marriage would be the next step. Now, the Hospital Authority has crushed that dream for us.'