Former cohabiting couple, Ms Chapman and Ms Ladwa are this week awaiting judgment as to the division of a property legally held in their joint names.
During the parties 16 year relationship, Ms Chapman was the primary breadwinner and Ms Ladwa principally the home maker. While Ms Ladwa undertook a law degree, a cookery course and attempted to start several businesses, her ex-partner criticised her for being a “cash cow” saying that she never gained permanent employment because she “didn’t’ want to work”. There are no children of the relationship.
In court Ms Chapman argued that she solely financed the property and the couples’ lifestyle and claimed the decision to transfer legal ownership into their joint names is invalid due to the undue influence exerted upon her by Ms Ladwa.
Ms Ladwa strongly denied this allegation. Her barrister argued that Ms Chapman was trying to re-write history and the property was always intended by the parties to be held in joint names as is reflected in the legal title.
Interestingly, Ms Ladwa argued that she was entitled to half the property “like any other ‘housewife’”. Ms Ladwa’s argument sheds light on a common misconception of the legal landscape for cohabitees. A ‘common law marriage’ does not legally exist in the UK. Nor does the law view cohabitee couples as equal to their married counterparts. Therefore, quite distinct from an ex-spouse, a cohabitee generally has no right to claim financial assistance from the other unless they have children, and there is no right of ‘alimony’ for instance in this country
In the absence of marriage, land law will dictate the legal ownership of any property of the relationship. In this case the property is legally held in joint names, so usually Ms Ladwa would be entitled to 50% of the property. Ms Chapman’s challenge to this share as a result of Ms Ladwa’s alleged undue pressure is a difficult legal hurdle to overcome and success will depend upon the strength of the evidence before the court as to whether she entered into this transaction of her own free will.
If Ms Ladwa and Ms Chapman were married however, the property in question would have special legal status as the former matrimonial home – so on relationship breakdown it is likely for that property to be shared notwithstanding legal ownership.
This case raises interesting questions of law and also shines further light on the legally vulnerable position of unmarried cohabitee couples. Judgment is awaited.
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Written by Nykol O’Shea, Trainee Lawyer in the Family Department.