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Family Law Blog

Comment on divorce & family law 

The law on cohabitation needs to change

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Cohabitation and property.

As a family law solicitor I am often in the unfortunate position of having to tell people who’ve lived together for many years that they could be made homeless by their partner and have no opportunity to claim any share of what they have considered to be the family home. As I have to explain unmarried couples do not have the same legal rights or protection as their married counter parts. And I think that needs to change.

The recent case of Curran v Collins [2015] has further highlighted the need for law reform and that couples are not protected unless their interests are set out in law and their intentions are expressly made. In this case the couple were in a relationship for over 30 years but were unmarried. During the time they were together they lived in various residential properties registered in the mans’ sole name and lived together for eight years. Prior to living together they had set up a business which they then continued to run together. At one point the lady had declined to be joint owner of a property on the basis that it would have been too expensive to pay additional life insurance. At one stage Mr Collins made a will leaving his estate to his partner, but when they separated he denied her access to their home and the business. Ms Curran sought her interest in the properties and the business yet the Court found that she hadn’t really worked in the business and had not made direct or indirect contribution to the properties, financial or otherwise. The Judge also felt the relationship did not give rise to an inference of fact that there was an agreement, arrangement or understanding as to joint beneficial ownership and the excuse over not wishing to incur extra costs of life insurance did not demonstrate a common intention to share the properties. Ms Curran sought to appeal this but her case was dismissed.

How can this be a fair outcome? On the evidence presented it was found that the first Judge had made a fair and correct decision, which is why the appeal could not be progressed.  

Although I continue to hear it, there is no such thing as ‘common law husband and wife’. You don’t get rights over someone else’s property if you are not married to them unless you can prove you directly contributed and that there was a shared intention as to joint ownership from the relationship and you suffered a financial detriment. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together or what you had hoped would be the case.

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a significant appetite by the Government or the opposition to address this issue. So the only advice I can give to unmarried couples who chose to live together is to make sure you understand your financial commitments to each other and ideally get some kind of agreement in writing, whether that’s the way you own your home, your joint roles in a business or whether you sit down with a family lawyer to draw up a living together agreement to set our clearly who would get what if the relationship fails. Don’t leave things to chance, or leave it in the hands of the courts to decide.

Kimberley Bailey
Family law solicitor Bristol

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