Cohabiting couples – the law remains unfair

The large number of people choosing to cohabit without getting married, has led to a rise in complex and quite often costly legal disputes between unmarried couples following separation in the absence of a Cohabitation Agreement.

The legal rights of cohabiting couples comes to the forefront once again with the case of Pamela Curran –v- Brian Collins which was heard by Central London County Court, in May 2012. However, there is an appeal pending and we are presently waiting for a date to be set for the appeal hearing.

The case concerns Pamela Curran aged 55 and Brian Collins aged 52. They separated in 2010 after a 30 year relationship. During the last years of their relationship they lived and worked together at The Haven, a boarding kennels and cattery business near Ashford, Kent. The Haven was bought in 2007 for £750,000 in Mr Collins sole name. He was the sole legal and beneficial owner of the business and the property, in which they lived together. When the parties separated, Ms Curran found herself penniless with nowhere to stay except with friends. Ms Curran made a claim for a share in the business and the property. Ms Curran said that she worked hard in the business, which Mr Collins had indicated to others was a partnership, but the County Court Judge ruled that Ms Curran had no legal right to a share in the property or the business. The Judge concluded that a business partnership between the couple had not been established and said that he had no choice but to ignore his ‘human sympathies’ and to ‘apply the law’ as he saw it.

Ms Curran said that she had always trusted Mr Collins and she had assumed that if their relationship ever broke down then she would receive her ‘fair share’ of the business and the property.

Ms Curran sought permission to appeal the County Court Judge’s decision. Her application came before Lord Justice Toulson in January 2013. She told him that she had been the victim of unfair and old-fashioned property laws which offer little protection to unmarried couples following a relationship break down. Ms Curran wept as she told the court that she had worked hard to make the business a success and yet she had been left with absolutely nothing. “I was absolutely stripped of everything” she said. “The person you see sitting here today is not the person I was, because I have been destroyed”. Her application seeking permission to appeal was granted by Lord Justice Toulson, who commented that “The law of property can be harsh on people, usually women, in that situation. Bluntly, the law remains unfair to people in the Appellant’s position…”
Unlike married couples, the assets accumulated during the period of cohabitation are not automatically joint assets, no matter how long you have been in a relationship or living together. Unmarried couples simply do not have the same rights as those couples that are married.

When an unmarried couple separate, they retain the asset (s) which are registered in their name, regardless of whether it’s the family home or the family business. If you wish to establish an interest in an asset such as a business or property, which is not registered in your sole or joint name, then couples should have this documented formally in a Cohabitation Agreement or a Declaration of Trust. A document clearly setting out the parties’ intention, allows for clarity. In the absence of such a document, it is for the court to interpret the parties’ intention by considering all the documentary evidence and the parties’ conduct during the period of their ownership.

Ms Curran’s situation once again highlights the need for cohabiting couples to have a proper written agreement in place particularly where they are business partners as well as cohabitees.

However, if you find yourself in a similar situation to Ms Curran, there is still hope for you ie. if your interest in a property or business has not been documented (in a Cohabitation Agreement or Declaration of Trust) then you can establish a joint intention provided you have a means of proving this to the court. This is where you will need the assistance of a Family Law Solicitor who can advise you of your chances of success having evaluated the evidence you have.

Should you seek any advice regarding your relationship breakdown or wish to have a Cohabitation Agreement drawn up then please contact our Family Law Solicitor, Ms Satvinder Sokhal on 0208 280 2710.