Most disputes between unmarried couples arise after they have separated, and most of them are about ownership of their former home. Typically the house is registered at the Land Registry in the name of just one of them, and the other is asserting that he or she should be entitled to a share of the equity.
The law in this area is famously complex, and if the issues come before a court the outcome in any individual case is very difficult to predict. That is because the law’s primary focus is on the circumstances in which the house was bought, and on conversations or agreements which may have taken place at that time. If the people involved have very different recollections of events, a judge will have to decide what he or she thinks was actually said. So, the case can balance on a knife edge, whilst the judge listens to both of them in court and chooses who to believe.
The first place the courts always look is to see whether there was an actual agreement or an understanding at the time when the house was bought. Such agreements can be in writing, or they can be spoken, so people’s accounts of what was said, possibly years ago, assume extraordinary importance. At the end of the day it is much harder to prove that a conversation took place if the other person involved says they don’t remember it, than something which was written down. Exchanges of text message and email get dragged out and scrutinised and analysed to a level which was probably never intended at the time they were sent.
But if the judge decides that there was no discernible agreement or understanding when the house was bought, he or she can look at “the whole course of the parties’ conduct” relating to the property, and see if an agreement can be inferred from that. This involves a much wider review of what happened during their relationship and how they organised things, particularly money, whilst they were together.
For example, if both people contribute equally towards the costs of improvements to the property, paying for materials and labour, and even doing some of the work themselves, then the judge might well decide that that indicates that there must have been an agreement between them that both of them would be entitled to a share of the equity, in some proportion or another. Even though no conversation to that effect ever took place. So in the courts you see receipts for all kinds of things get produced and examined - who paid a the decorator a few hundred pounds for papering the bedroom can assume extraordinary significance. Pooling your salaries into a joint bank account out of which you pay bills and costs of improvements can also be indicative of some kind of agreement.
I often hear lawyers say to the court “why would my client have spent all this money on the house, and spent all those weekends tiling the bathroom if there was no agreement that he (or she) would get anything for it?” The question is asked rhetorically as it if there were only one possible answer it. Of course there could be any number of explanations – it could be a birthday present, or a spontaneous act of generosity (remember when you felt generous towards each other?!) or it could just be that he (or she) was sick of living in a house that was a bit of a dump. But in the law money talks, so the question needs an answer.
So the upshot of this is – if your partner is living in your house and you start working on it together a few texts and emails gently reminding him (or her) whose house it is, and promising some kind of non-monetary reward (use your imagination!) may become invaluable in the future.
John Pratley is an expert divorce lawyer, who has more than 25 years experience advising clients purely about divorce and related family law issues, such as the financial consequences of separating and divorcing. After establishing the first niche family law practice in Bristol, and going on to senior management roles in a national firm, John set up Apple Tree Family Law in 2018. Apple tree family Law solicitors specialise in advice about divorce and financial issues.
We are based in Bristol and Exeter, but we have clients all over the UK and further afield. We offer, simply, clear and accurate advice about divorce and family law issues, and the very best client service, for a clear and reasonable price.