Property and unmarried couples

Even if a couple have been together for many years, if they are not married or in a civil partnership, there are no automatic rights to property on death or the end of the relationship.

It is always advisable for any parties purchasing a property together, be it a married couple, cohabitees, friends or relations to take comprehensive legal advice at the time of purchase. This advice should include reference to what happens to the property on death, divorce or if the parties wish to go their separate ways. A document called a 'declaration of trust' can be drawn up to contain this detail. Unfortunately, many people do not want to incur the additional legal fees that such a document would involve and thus can be left unprotected years later in the event of relationship breakdown.

In general terms, an unmarried couple who split up have little or no statutory protection and have to rely on contract and trust law to determine their shares in a property. If there is no evidence as to what the parties agree between themselves, the court may simply have to decide what is fair in the light of the information provided.

A recent case had to decide on the division of property following the end of a 25-year relationship. Each case will depend on its own facts and thus the outcome of the case in question is less relevant than the circumstances which a court will look at when trying to reach this difficult decision. A court will take into account issues such as:

  • the length of the relationship
  • the nature of the relationship between the parties
  • how the purchase price was funded
  • how the parties arranged their finances
  • the purpose for which a property has been acquired – the court will view a family home differently to an investment property, for example
  • whether there are any children of the relationship who require a roof over their head
  • which of the parties have retained control over the property in question, who has paid mortgage, outgoings repairs etc?
  • any factors which indicate a change of intention between the parties over the years

In some extreme cases, the entire value of a property which is being contested in the courts can be eaten up in legal fees. Thus, failing to take advice at the time of purchase or transfer of ownership can be a false economy.

To discuss this or any other property related matter, contact us.

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