Situations where the legal and beneficial ownership of property belong to different people most commonly arise in relation to residential property in the context of a relationship breakdown. Cohabitation laws, and unmarried couples’ rights, so far as they relate to property owned by unmarried couples, or common law partners, are essentially the laws relating to property, equity and trusts.
The classic cases relate to unmarried couples where the legal title to the family home is held by just one partner. Many of the principles we describe here will apply equally in the case of a married couple but disputes over spouses’ interests usually arise in the context of divorce proceedings where matrimonial law is applied. If the other partner has contributed to the initial purchase price, to the deposit on the purchase or to the mortgage payments then they may well have a beneficial interest in the property even if they do not appear on the legal title. In some circumstances paying towards household expenses or carrying out work to the property may also be sufficient to establish an interest. Where anyone other than a sole legal owner has a beneficial interest in a property the property is held of trust and the extent of the different interests under the trust can be determined by the court if necessary. This includes questions of the right to a share of the proceeds of sale, the right to a share of any income from the property, the right to force a sale and the right to occupy the property in question.
Closely allied to this area of trust law are the doctrines of Proprietary Estoppel and Undue Influence which may be able to assist you if you have relied on a representation or assurance made to you by a third party, or have been pressured into a certain course of action by someone on whom you relied. Both are equitable doctrines, meaning that the court can take a more flexible approach than with a typical legal claim while principles such as the blamelessness of the injured party bear more weight.
If you want advice on unmarried couples’ property rights or representation in relation to a dispute we can advise on your position; inform you of the factors that the court would take into consideration; assist with negotiations and/or mediation; and prepare and make a formal case. We may also be able to suggest steps that you can take to improve your position before any claim is made.