COVID-19, cohabitation, and your property rights


07 April 2020

As the government lockdown continues, family relationships are coming under increasing pressure. In some cases, the relationship may already have been tense. In other situations, the emotional and financial impact of the pandemic may have caused new stresses in the relationship. 

People joke about an imminent increase in divorce rates, but it is not only married couples who are being affected:

  • As we saw in Laura Tanguay’s article The decline of marriage: what property law rights apply to unmarried cohabitees?, cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2018, 17.9% of families were cohabiting couple families. 
  • It is not only people in romantic relationship who choose to cohabit. Two friends may live together out of friendship or convenience, or a married couple may build a ‘granny annexe’ in their back garden to house their parents. 

When a relationship between cohabitees breaks down, it is often sensible for one or both people to move out of the property and for their financial ties to be brought to an end. However, even at the best of times, it can be difficult for cohabitees to agree on what should happen to a property. Living in another person’s house does not automatically give you a right to remain living there, or a right to share in the sale proceeds. Your position is governed by strict property and trust law principles. The situation is very different for married couples, where, upon the breakdown of the marriage, property is dealt with under the Family Law Act 1996, with reference to what is fair and the respective needs of the parties.

At present, there is the added difficulty of COVID-19. Government guidance says that, wherever possible, people should delay moving to a new house while measures are in place to fight the coronavirus. This does not of course prevent a victim of domestic abuse from seeking help and support: see Domestic abuse in the coronavirus lockdown by our Family Law Team.

But if you cannot move out, you can still become better informed about your property rights. Now may be a good time to check with a specialist solicitor to see if you own what you think you own. So often we find that parties at the outset of a relationship do not necessarily split the shares of a property as carefully as they might. Furthermore, the financial position of the parties may have changed considerably during the course of their relationship, in light of jobs and inheritances for example. Couples often omit to vary the basis of their ownership accordingly.

If you are thinking of cohabiting; you already live with another person; or if you think your relationship might be coming to an end, Birketts can advise you on your legal rights and options. One option, which is often appropriate where it can be agreed, is to enter into a document called a declaration of trust, setting out clearly the rights and obligations of the parties in relation to the property.

Any referral would be subject to strict solicitor-client confidentiality. If needs be, we will be vigilant to ensure that it is only you and us who even know you are consulting a solicitor.

If you require any further information in relation to property disputes of this nature, please contact Stephanie Butler on 01473 406312 or [email protected]

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at April 2020.