As we have outlined above, on separation unmarried couples can face serious problems in achieving a fair outcome when the legal documents do not reflect the reality of what they had understood would happen about the ownership of a property.

On death, similarly difficult situations can arise for unmarried couples in relation to properties, where the contributions, ownership shares or intentions have not been made clear. If one of the couple dies without having made a will setting out how his/her property should be distributed, then the intestacy rules take effect. These rules provide a list of those who will benefit upon death and are completely unsuitable for cohabitating couples to rely on, as a cohabitee is not recognised by the rules. By contrast, in the case of a married couple, the rules entitle a surviving spouse to administer the estate and to receive personal possessions, a legacy of £450,000 (or £250,000 if the deceased had children) and then an interest in the residue of the estate. A cohabitee, however, is entitled neither to administer the estate, nor to receive anything from it. The only option for the surviving partner in this situation is to argue that reasonable financial provision has not been made and to claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for maintenance. These claims can be difficult and expensive to pursue. If the partner who has died remained married, either because they had opted for an informal separation or because they were in the process of divorcing, the spouse might benefit ahead of the current partner, who might have to make an application to court for financial support.

The case of Webster and Webster [2008] EWHC 31 (Ch), involved a claim arising from the death of Mr John Webster. John had lived with his partner Ms Angela Webster as an unmarried couple for 27 years, but had died intestate and with their family home solely in his name. They had two children together, and John had three children from a prior relationship. As there was no will, the property passed under the intestacy rules to his children without any share passing to Angela, despite her contribution to the property expenses throughout. Angela made an application to court to resolve the dispute between herself and the adult children; she was successful in arguing under the Inheritance Act 1975 that the intestacy did not make reasonable provision for her, but she could not persuade the court of her argument that she was a joint tenant of the property. Whilst ultimately successful in keeping the house, it was at the expense of costly, divisive and uncertain court proceedings. Not only is the message that making wills is essential for couples living together, but that any will made must be reviewed regularly, particularly on any change of personal circumstances to avoid distressing and expensive disputes.