The danger of cohabiting without making an express agreement as to how the title to property is to be held has again been underlined by a recent case.
It concerned a woman who had lived with a man for several years in a house which was registered in their joint names and financed by a mortgage. However, there was no document recording the couple’s respective shares in the ownership of the property. The man had paid the deposit on the house from his own funds and also paid the mortgage repayments. He also paid other costs relating to the property, such as rates and utility bills. The couple had children and the woman, who worked, spent the majority of her income on them and the maintenance of the family. The couple drew up wills leaving their estates to one another.
When their relationship broke down, the man argued that whilst he intended that his partner should inherit the property on his death, he had not intended it to be owned in equal shares. In court the judge decided that ownership of the house should be apportioned by the respective contributions of each party to its purchase. Since the woman had made no contribution, her share was nil. She appealed to the Court of Appeal, asserting that a beneficial joint tenancy had been created with her rightful share being 50 per cent. The man argued that his intention had been only that she would inherit the property if he predeceased her and they were still a couple on his death.
The Court of Appeal found that the judge in the lower court had erred in considering the couple’s respective contributions to the cost of the property as representing their intentions with regard to its ownership. The fact that the property was jointly owned justified the assumption that both were beneficial owners. The ownership split had to be determined by the intentions of each party and the important issue was that the relevant intention was the intention understood by the other party. Furthermore, the respective contributions of each party could not be conclusive. The man’s intentions were not made clear. His argument that his partner’s share should be a lesser sum did not rest on logic and he could not demonstrate that the couple had shared the common intention that her share should be other than a half of the total.
In this case, had there been documentation created when the property was purchased to show how it should be owned, there would have been little room for dispute. The fact that there was no evidence of any such agreement made it possible for the case to go all the way to the Court of Appeal.
If you are buying a property with someone else, having the agreed ownership documented when it is purchased is inexpensive and easy to do.