The massive difference in how the law regards cohabiting and married couples was again highlighted by the recent case of Kernott v Jones.
Most people would think it bitterly unfair that a person could walk away from the family home, leaving their partner to pay the mortgage, deal with the bills and keep on top of the maintenance and come back (in this case 17 years later!) and demand half of the house. Most people would be astonished to find that the Court would agree that the partner who walked away should indeed have his or her half of the property but this is, in fact, the law.
Were the couple married, contributions, the period of delay and all other assets would have been considered (along with all other circumstances) and the result would have been very different. But the law applying to cohabiting couples is very simple. The property was purchased in joint names. The legal presumption is that the owners therefore share the proceeds of its sale equally. The couple did not change this legally when they separated and there was no evidence for the Court to infer that the couple’s intentions as to how they were to share the ownership of the house had changed. The passage of time was not enough.
This case is a salutatory reminder for cohabiting couples to ensure that they resolve property issues properly when they separate. It may well be distressing, time consuming and involve cost but the consequences of not doing so can be dire. If you do not see a solicitor to change the ownership of your home or have a separation agreement drawn up then, legally, nothing changes. Your partner may have walked away from your family home but his or her entitlement to half of it remains intact.