Are you entitled to your share of the house if it is only in your partner’s name?

Two people signing an agreement

As any long-time reader of this blog will be aware, I am a staunch supporter of basic property rights for cohabitees. I strongly believe that, for example, if one cohabitee makes a significant contribution towards a property owned by the other cohabitee (i.e. usually the property in which they both lived), then they should be entitled to a share of that property if the relationship breaks down. In other words, I don’t think it is fair that the owning cohabitee should benefit from the efforts of the non-owning cohabitee.

A recent case demonstrates just how hard it can be under the current law for such a ‘contributing cohabitee’ to succeed with a claim for a share in a property owned by their former partner, and perhaps, therefore, the need for a fairer system.

The case was Dobson v Griffey, heard by His Honour Paul Matthews in the High Court last month (his judgment was handed down on the 10th of May). Note that the case was heard in the Chancery Division, rather than the Family Division, as cohabitee disputes such as this are not classified as ‘family’ matters, despite obviously having a strong ‘family’ element and many of the characteristics of a family dispute following the breakdown of a marriage or civil partnership.

As we will see, the fact that it is not a ‘family’ case is not a trivial matter for the claimant, as the case is determined according to complex rules which must seem quite alien to most claimants – how they could ever deal with such a claim without specialist legal advice, I don’t know.

Anyway, to the facts of the case.

The relationship between the parties began in October 2004, and by August 2006 they were living together, in a rented property. In February 2007 the defendant, Mr Griffey, purchased a farm in his sole name, with the aid of a mortgage. The parties lived together in the farmhouse. Their relationship broke down in December 2011, and the claimant, Ms Dobson, moved out in the following year. Between the purchase of the farm and the breakdown of the relationship various works of renovation and improvement were carried out to the farm, first to the stables and other parts to be used as a livery business, and later to the farmhouse itself.

HHJ Matthews explained Ms Dobson’s case thus:

“The claimant’s case is that, before the property was bought, there was an agreement between them as to their respective rights in relation to it and that the claimant relied to her detriment on that agreement by carrying out some of the works of renovation and improvement. Alternatively, an agreement to similar effect is to be inferred from the course of dealing between them. She has a fallback position that she had an expectation of being able to live at the farm for the rest of her life.”

Mr Griffey denied that there was any such agreement, and also minimised the extent to which Ms Dobson carried out or contributed to the works of renovation.

Obviously, Ms Dobson could not rely upon any law akin to that available upon divorce, where the court can adjust ownership of property, as it thinks fit. Instead, she had to rely upon the doctrines of ‘constructive trust’ and/or ‘proprietary estoppel’. These are explained by HHJ Matthews in his judgment, but essentially a ‘constructive trust’ is where the parties had a common intention that the property should be shared, and the non-owner acts to her detriment, in reliance of that intention. ‘Proprietary estoppel’ is similar, whereby the owner “by his words or conduct makes an assurance to or creates an expectation in the claimant.”

To cut a long story short, HHJ Matthews found that Ms Dobson had done “significant work” to the property, had “made a real contribution by her labour and her supervision”, and during one period “did a great deal of heavy and laborious work”, which “amounted to a significant contribution to the renovations.” However, he held that none of this was done for the purpose of financial gain – her labour and commitment were simply “understandable in the context of their relationship and their intended long-term future together with children.”

Further, and crucially, whatever Ms Dobson’s intentions, HHJ Matthews could not infer that Mr Griffey’s intentions were to agree to share the property, or any profit that might be derived from it, with Ms Dobson. He had paid for everything, and had made no promise or assurance to Ms Dobson of an interest in the property, or that she could remain there for the rest of her life.

Accordingly, Ms Dobson’s claim was dismissed.

Has the law treated Ms Dobson unfairly? Well, to be honest, this is not necessarily a cut and dried case. The relevant part of the relationship was only four years, and there were no children. The typical sort of case where I see real unfairness, and therefore the need for reform, is where the relationship is much longer, often with children, and the non-owning party has therefore devoted a considerable part of their life to it – in those circumstances, I do not think it is fair that she (and it usually is ‘she’) should come away with nothing.

You can read the full report of the case here. For a summary of the current law on the rights of cohabitees in relation to property, see this post by Stowe Senior Solicitor Jane Gray.

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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7 comments

Andrew - June 21, 2018 at 4:56pm

What a good thing it is that there is and has for a long time been a simple mechanism for achieving what you think is fair, John. It’s called marriage. It costs less than £200 and a few minutes of the parties’ time. Oh yes, and two witnesses.

Dr. Manhattan. - June 21, 2018 at 5:17pm

Rarely, thats one thing i can agree on.

Dr. Manhattan. - June 21, 2018 at 5:19pm

You dont need Marriage, all you need is a change in the Law.

rummmm - June 21, 2018 at 8:47pm

absolutely agree. I had a 13 year relationship and i owned my own property. On the promise of marriage and two kids, i sold the property and put it into a business that was on paper owned by my ex in greater shares. I paid the nursery fees which was more than the mortgage as we was going to get married . No ring. Kids took his name as we had intentions. Something i would never had done if not. I also would have rented out my property . We had another business which is very successful but i was robbed of any profit and in tolata, the business that made a loss all of sudden became my business yet he was the majority shareholder. The business making money never gave me a penny . The mortgage and the renovations were paid by diverted money , from which was concealed until everything unravelled some 9 years or so later. He lied and purged so many times it made me literally want to stab him on oath. I lost everything. His story was favoured. He informed the Judge that i never paid the nursery and also admitted to never sharing anything. He was a controlling, evil man. My only solace is i have my receipts now after crying and begging for them , that will prove he totally lied . Im waiting to bring this perjury to the attention of somebody that will actually listen and uphold the law. Meanwhile i face being homeless after being the higher earner and just falling for a fraud in every facet of the word. Triple life, feathering his own nest, 2 faced, evil and just a pathelogical liar. If i had not begged for my proof that actually should have been destroyed some years ago , i would be with nothing. I at last have a chance . The law is hideous, and wrong. Schedule 1 is an insult to the usally mother that cares for the kids, when the dad brings home the bacon. In my case he bought home the bacon for himself. You then have the lovely prospect of handing back the property whilst he has a life of luxury. You are homeless in your 50’s with every asset stripped because you trusted and love a FRAUD. The law as you say is so ROBIN HOOD and wrong. The new papers have to be passed to improve this but only if you have split in the last year or so i believe. So even if it changes i would have been left with nothing after a great career, a hideous cheating evil man, oppressive and a soul destroying life, homeowner, to be completely cheated and all allowed by the court. Thank god the receipts appeared otherwise the courts would have been upholding the law for a fraud. Of course they are going to lie as it feathers their pot, and they just don’t give a dam. 13 Years and nothing. No future change that will effect the case only the beautiful person that got my receipts , but love letters apparently don’t show intention or deceit, or even purgery in this day and age . The lady would not have broke her back with manual labour if she was doing it to line her hideous lying ex’s pocket. I think she needs to appeal all the way

Andy - June 22, 2018 at 8:30am

Firstly I may have understood this wrong but….
Some people use the law to gain what is now known the GOLDIGGER profit. Never paid in but want half of all the other persons wealth or assets.
The law has given rights to aquire the assess of financial value but what if the law changed and it became what’s mine is mine and yours is yours etc..

Time and time again we here one person only makes a single financial contribution and bang that’s it.. Half the property is yours.
Marriage has the effect where you would think long term happiness then turns sour you will see the reality of situations such as this and if you have children. Then game over..

Joseph - June 22, 2018 at 11:53am

The typical sort of case where I see real unfairness, and therefore the need for reform, is where the relationship is much longer, often with children, and the non-owning party has therefore devoted a considerable part of their life to it – in those circumstances, I do not think it is fair that she (and it usually is ‘she’) should come away with nothing.

And I suspect you would find it fair if it was a He. Wont you? This guy really sucks. The law often treats people unfairly irrespecive of wrong or right. This a game and often when children are involved it serve well the purpose of some women.
In these case, the lack of bargaining chip led to the poor woman’s case being dismissed. Sad but it is a game of winning and losing.

rum - June 26, 2018 at 12:58pm

I read so many posts. I have one glimmer of hope. What is actually being done to change the law ? given most of parliament don’t want it but the poeple do . can there be some update from this amazing blog please ? it would be nice to actually see if anything is ever going to happen. I can’t believe more solicitors and legal recorders, qc’s etc are not doing more in this day and age ? or are they ?

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