Unmarried couples - what are your rights if you separate?October 25, 2017
When an unmarried couple separates they are often surprised to hear that unless they have dependent children together, any financial claims they may have against each other (if any) are often limited to claims against the family home. Jennifer Pollock looks at the rights of unmarried couples when their relationship breaks down and the legal aspects of sharing a property.
Unfortunately, couples that live together often fail to record their intentions in respect of the ownership of a property at the time of purchase, which can cause problems when a relationship ends.
Solicitors are usually involved when a couple are unable to resolve a disagreement as to what each person’s share of a jointly owned property should be, or to agree whether one person has acquired financial interest in a property owned by the other. These types of disputes are dealt with in a very different way than if the couple were married, with the law concentrating strictly on what the legal position is regarding the ownership of the property between the former couple rather than what is fair.
Jointly owned property
If a couple have purchased the family home in joint names, unless they have signed a declaration of trust setting out how the property is to be owned between them or recorded this in the Transfer Deed, the starting point will usually be that the couple intended the property to be owned equally.
Sometimes one person will claim that they should have a larger share in the property than their co-owner perhaps due to a larger contribution to the purchase price or work they did to the property. In the absence of a written agreement the party seeking a larger share will need to be able to prove that the parties jointly intended for the shares to be unequal and provide evidence to show what that share should be.
Property in one person’s sole name
Where an unmarried couple have lived together in a property purchased in the sole name of one of the parties, unless there is a declaration of trust in place, the party claiming an interest in the property would need to show that the intention was for them to share in the ownership of the property, even if the property was not legally held in their joint names. They will need to provide evidence of this for example by recounting conversations between the parties about ownership, or evidence of their behaviour, for example a contribution towards the purchase price. They will also need to show that they acted to their detriment in reliance on this intention (this will usually be quite clear where a financial contribution has been made).
What can be done to protect couples when they purchase a property together?
It is very important that couples obtain proper legal advice at the point that their property is purchased, especially if they are contributing different amounts to the deposit or one party has a family member making a financial contribution. Their solicitor will then be able to advise them the best way to record this agreement and protect their contributions. A declaration of trust can also be drawn up during the parties’ relationship if their intentions change or one person makes an additional significant contribution, for example paying off the mortgage or paying for an extension.