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Buying property with your partner? Read this advice on cohabitation and property first

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Marilyn Stowe, Senior Partner, Stowe Family Law, explains all

Cohabitation remains a popular choice of relationship in Britain. There are now some 6.5 million people in cohabiting relationships. Unfortunately, an increasing number of cohabitees learn each year, to their great shock, that there is little that the law can do for them following the breakdown of their relationships.  If you are cohabiting, you may find that the future of the home you always thought of as being joint is under question, when your relationship breaks down. 

But what can you do to ensure that you’re not left out of pocket and out on the street, when calling an end to a relationship.

Put legal safeguards in place

Just one in six cohabitees who own their homes has a written agreement about his or her share in the ownership.  Just one in five has sought advice about their legal position.  Don’t rely on a promise, especially if you make payments or regular contributions towards your shared home. 

Get your name on the title deeds of your home

Ensure that you have protected and registered your interest on the property’s title deeds, or you may face real trouble if you split. There are various permutations: sole ownership, equal ownership, part ownership, owning a share on a fixed basis or even on a floating basis in proportion to the contribution made by each party. Property ownership should be agreed by a “declaration of trust”, registered with the Land Registry. This will help you to avoid expensive litigation in the future.

A joint tenancy agreement with a declaration of trust will set out the exact shares owned by each of you in the property, but also what will happen if one or both of you wish to sell. This agreement should be drawn up by your solicitor if you bought your home jointly, or transferred from one of you to both of you if you did not.  A written or verbal agreement may also carry some weight, although such agreements are more difficult to enforce.

Enter into a cohabitation agreement

Unfortunately there is no cohesive law available to cohabitees. Instead these relationships are “regulated” with a hotchpotch of different laws. A cohabitation agreement, also called a “living together agreement”, sets out how assets and finances will be divided in the case of a split. Most importantly it will cover where the parties will live if they split up and how this will be paid for. Will the property be sold or will it remain as a home for one partner and the couple’s children? When will an intended sale take place? Draft it with the help of a solicitor, so that all the important points are covered. These can include everything from intervals between any payments, to events that could cause the agreement to end. Your solicitor will also draft the agreement in the form of a deed, so that it is legally enforceable.

Can the court alter a previous agreement about property?

Under certain circumstances, yes. If you do split up and circumstances have changed since you purchased a jointly-owned property or transferred it to joint names, you or your partner may ask a court to make a decision about ownership. For example, if one partner has contributed far more to the property than the other partner, despite an initial agreement that both partners would contribute equally, the out-of-pocket partner can apply to the court to alter the original agreement in his or her favour. Be warned: this is far from straightforward. Complex chancery law applies and you will need expert advice in a field of law that is a minefield.

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