We are frequently asked to advise clients on property ownership following the breakdown of a non marital relationship. There are two potential forms that the dispute can take: (1) the property is in joint names, but one or other party is claiming a greater interest than the other or (2) the alternative is that the property is in one of the party’s names, but the other asserts an interest in it. It is this latter scenario which I discuss in this article.

Helpfully, two west country cases have come before the same judge last year, but with very different results.

The Facts of the Cases

The first case was Culliford v Thorpe in which Mr Culliford entered into a relationship with Mr Thorpe in 2010. Mr Culliford worked as a flight attendant with British Airways and owned his property in Weston-super-Mare. Mr Thorpe did not work but was more practical than Mr Culliford and undertook repairs and decoration to the Weston property.

In 2012 Mr Thorpe’s father passed away and it was (mistakenly) thought that Mr Thorpe acquired an interest in his father’s share of the family home. It was at about this time that Mr Culliford was claimed to have said to Mr Thorpe:

“This is it, it is time we joined forces properly.”

Thereafter they embarked on an extensive refurbishment of the Weston property with Mr Culliford undertaking the majority of the labour and funding the materials.

In the second case of Dobson v Griffey the parties met in 2004. They moved in together in 2006 and sold their respective properties in the same year. In 2007 Mr Griffey purchased a farm near Oakhampton which was to be their home.

Ms Dobson had experience in the equestrian businesses. It was intended that she would run an equestrian business from the farm. She went about repairing the livery yard and updating the facilities to make it both useable and more attractive to potential customers. The Judge noted that she undertook a significant amount of work. Ms Dobson’s contribution to the enterprise was her business and building experience and her labour.

What the law says

In both claims Mr Thorpe and Ms Dobson advanced their case on the basis that they had acquired an interest in the respective properties as a result of the efforts they had put in to the properties.

Where land is vested in one person and the other (not being the legal owner) claims an interest, that person must show that the legal owner holds it on trust for them both in the shares that the non-legal owner claims. What they need to show is that at any time prior to acquisition, or exceptionally at some later date, there has been an agreement, arrangement or understanding reached between them that the property is to be shared beneficially. Once that is established, they must then show that he or she acted to his or her detriment or significantly altered his or her position in reliance on the agreement.

The decision in these cases

In Culliford v Thorpe, Mr Culliford died and his personal representative sought possession of the Weston property. The Judge found that there was an agreement and that in reliance on it, Mr Thorpe had acted to his detriment in carrying out extensive work to the Weston property, investing both his time and money. He was therefore entitled to one half of that property.

However, in Dobson v Griffey, the opposite was found. Mr Griffey had paid the purchase price and supported the mortgage himself. There was no agreement that Ms Dobson was to have a share and it was not possible to infer an agreement from the parties’ conduct. Everything Ms Dobson had done, she did in the context of their relationship and the shared hope of enjoying a long-term future together, perhaps with children.

Points to take away

It is perhaps obvious, but context is everything: each case will be subject to careful scrutiny as to what the parties agreed or understood between them before the purchase or, more exceptionally, after. But perhaps more importantly (particularly in the current social context where cohabitation is becoming more and more common) is the need to sit down and have an open and frank conversation before moving in together to discuss what will happen if the worst occurs and the parties separate. Having that conversation, recording the agreement in a cohabitation agreement or declaration of trust can save the parties a lot of distress and expense in the longer term. Hopefully the relationship is a success, in which case the cohabitation agreement can be revisited or the parties tie the knot.

James Burrows is a partner in the dispute resolution team at Stephens Scown specialising in inheritance and trust disputes. If you have any queries you would like to discuss please do contact James on 01872 265100, by email solicitors@stephens-scown.co.uk.