Posted by familylaw on 20th October 2014
Last updated 8th November 2020

One of our family law solicitors in Exeter takes a look at a case study involving a separating unmarried couple…

Mr Southwell and Ms Blackburn lived together for ten years in a home chosen by them together, purchased in his name and funded by him with no financial assistance from her.

Indeed, Mr Southwell was careful not to permit Ms Blackburn to contribute or own the property with him.

He made promises to Ms Blackburn that she would be secure in the new home long term. Relying on the assurance, Ms Blackburn (who had two children by a previous relationship) left the secure rented property she had spent much of her money on and spent the rest of her savings to move to live with Mr Southwell. Ms Blackburn was further reassured because Mr Southwell arranged for her to benefit from his pension if he died.

After ten years the relationship ended. Mr Southwell gave Ms Blackburn notice to quit the property before changing the locks, making her homeless. The court found that he had broken his promise to her and that it would be unconscionable to permit him to do so.

Although Ms Blackburn invested no money in the property and did not own it, the court valued her claim as equivalent to the money she had invested in improving her previous home (£20,000), together with the cost of her move to live with him (£5,000). Inflation was applied taking the total to £28,500.

Points for unmarried partners to note:

  • A Cohabitation agreement can prevent such disputes. Provision can be made for the non-owning party to receive an agreed sum in compensation on future separation if they give up secure accommodation to move;
  • Unmarried partners who don’t own the home in dispute and haven’t contributed directly to buying or improving it may still have a claim if they can show that they were given assurances about their security or rights which persuaded them to act in a way which was against their own interests (e.g. by giving up a secure home to move in);
  • It is rare for a cohabiting couple not to make such promises to one another. This situation will apply to many such relationships;
  • The promise (and the reliance on it at personal cost) is made from the moment the couple move in together. The length of the relationship is therefore not critical.
  • Property owners defending claims by non-owning former partners should take particular care. Giving notice to their former partner to quit and changing the locks can give rise to an actionable breach of any promise made, and reflects poorly on the owning party. Always take advice before excluding the non-owning party from the home.
  • It may seem counter intuitive when one party does not own the home, but an early (without prejudice) offer of settlement which takes into account the disadvantaged party’s potential losses can provide costs protection and assist in opposing a claim.

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