Property Disputes Between Cohabiting Couples

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Cohabitation, the practice of living together in an intimate relationship without formal legal recognition, has become increasingly prevalent in modern society. While cohabitation has its benefits, the absence of legal documentation can give rise to complexities, particularly when it comes to property disputes.

The blurred lines between personal and shared assets can lead to disagreements and conflicts that may be challenging to resolve. As societal norms continue to evolve, understanding the nuances of property disputes in cohabitation scenarios becomes crucial for both individuals and legal practitioners seeking clarity in an ever-changing landscape.Top of Form

If you are looking for expert help and advice surrounding cohabiting couples’ separation rights then please get in touch with Expert Family Law today to find out how our experienced family law solicitors can assist you.

Joint Tenants or Tenants in Common

When individuals jointly acquire a property, they typically establish their ownership as either ‘Joint Tenants’ or ‘Tenants in Common.’

In the case of ‘Joint Tenants,’ each party is classed as joint owners and enjoy equal rights to the entire property. On the other hand, ‘Tenants in Common’ involves co-owners holding specific, and sometimes varying, shares of the property.

The Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 (TOLATA) gives the court the power to resolve disputes regarding ownership of property or land.

What property rights do cohabiting couples have upon separation?

Contrary to popular belief, the ideas of a ‘common law’ marriage and ‘common law’ spouses do not exist and are not recognised in the eyes of the law in England and Wales. Simply put, if you are not married or in a civil partnership then you do not have the same rights as a married couple even if you are living together as if you are married.

If the cohabiting couple both own their home, then they both legally have joint tenancy and the right to remain living there until it is sold. However, if one party owns the home outright, then the other party will have no legal right to live in the property following the separation. The non-owning party can, however, prove they had a beneficial interest in the property if they contributed toward mortgage payments or if there is proof of an intention to jointly own the property.

If there is no obvious or written evidence regarding the property and its payments, then the court will instead look to each individual party’s actions and intentions. Simply put, the court is much more limited in the subject of financial provisions and financial support for unmarried couples as opposed to the protections afforded to married couples.

Express Declarations of Trust

A written document known as an Express Declaration of Trust outlines the ownership shares of individuals in a property. This document can also detail various aspects related to the property, such as responsibilities for day-to-day expenses like mortgage payments, renovations, and utility bills, as well as occupancy entitlements and terms of property sale.

The Express Declaration of Trust serves as a conclusive representation of the parties’ intentions regarding the property’s ownership structure. Unless a successful claim is made to rescind or rectify the Trust Declaration, the parties are bound by its terms.

Challenging an Express Declaration is a legitimate option for a party, but it can only be done by establishing grounds such as common mistake, undue influence, or fraud. However, proving these claims is generally a challenging endeavour.

Resolving property disputes between cohabiting couples

Resolving a property dispute between a cohabiting couple when a relationship breaks down can be a delicate and complex process. It often requires a combination of legal, emotional, and practical considerations. Here is how such disputes can be addressed:

  1. Open Communication:
    • Encourage open and honest communication between the parties involved. Attempt to understand each other’s perspectives and concerns.
  2. Mediation:
    • Consider mediation as a first step. A neutral third party can assist in facilitating discussions, helping the couple reach a mutually acceptable agreement without resorting to legal action.
  3. Legal Advice:
    • Seek legal advice from professionals who specialise in family or property law. Understanding legal rights and responsibilities is crucial in finding a fair resolution.
  4. Document Review:
    • Examine any existing legal documents, such as property deeds, cohabitation agreements, or declarations of trust. These documents can provide clarity on ownership rights and responsibilities.
  5. Negotiation:
    • Engage in negotiations, either directly or through legal representatives, to find a compromise. This may involve discussions about the division of assets, financial contributions, and ongoing responsibilities.
  6. Cohabitation Agreements:
    • If a cohabitation agreement exists, review its terms and conditions. Such agreements may outline how property disputes should be resolved, providing a framework for negotiation.
  7. Court Action:
    • If an amicable resolution is not achievable, legal action may be necessary. Each party should be prepared to present their case in court, and a judge will make a decision based on applicable laws and evidence.


It is important to note that every situation is unique, and the approach to resolving a property dispute may vary. Seeking professional guidance and maintaining a cooperative mindset can contribute to a more effective and satisfactory resolution for all parties involved.

How can Expert Family Law assist?

Our panel of family law solicitors are highly experienced in dealing with property disputes between cohabiting couples and can effectively assist clients.

As well as assisting with cohabiting couples’ separation rights, our panel of family law solicitors can also advise and assist on the process of divorce and the division of assets following the relationship breakdown of married couples or civil partnerships (ancillary relief).

Our team of leading family law specialists have many years of experience and expertise, so you can have peace of mind that your legal matters will be dealt with professionally and with empathy. They will guide you through the legal process, helping you to make the difficult decisions in an understanding manner.

Get in touch with our family law team today using the form at the top of the page to find out if a family lawyer from a law firm on our panel could help on your case.


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