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Articles Family Law 18th Dec 2023

“Holly and the Ivy”: Prickly disputes over property ownership between cohabiting couples. The family law 12 days of Christmas – day 10

As we turn our calendars to December, and we can finally start getting into the Christmas spirit, our family law solicitors Alex Haworth and Gemma Nicholls-Webber share several of their favourite family law topics with a festive twist.

Over the first 12 working days of December, they’ll be giving their family law version of the 12 songs of Christmas, where they’ll cover a wide range of questions or issues that often arise when dealing with family law matters…


“Holly and the Ivy”: Prickly disputes over property ownership between cohabiting couples

Property ownership can be a complicated issue, especially where you are cohabitees and there is a disagreement as to how the property is owned between you. Cohabitees do not enjoy the same rights as a married couple, and as such, when the Court determine your property rights, their first consideration is to ascertain how you own the property.

Where the property is owned jointly, the legal title is held between the owners as joint tenants. There is also a beneficial interest in the property, and this can be held either as joint tenants or tenants in common. I have explained the difference between these two concepts below;

Joint Tenants – This means that each person owns the whole property and neither own a specific share in the property. On the death of a joint tenant, the survivor/s automatically inherit the property. That persons share cannot be left to someone else under their Will.

Tenants in Common – Each co-owner owns a specific share in the property, whether in equal or unequal shares. Each owner is able to leave their share, on their death, to someone other than a surviving owner. It does not automatically pass to the surviving owners.

It is important to note that a joint tenancy in equity can be ‘severed’. This severance results in the owners holding the beneficial interest as tenants in common. It is often advisable to sever a joint tenancy following a relationship breakdown.

The registered title of the property at HM Land Registry will indicate how the property is held. If there is written evidence as to how the property is held, this will often be conclusive. However, where that is not the case, we have to consider if there is any evidence to show what was intended by the parties, often through their words or actions, for example, who paid the deposit on purchase, who has contributed what towards the property or who has paid the mortgage.

Additionally, we may also need to consider if it would be inequitable or unfair that one party, because of their conduct, denies the other party of a beneficiary interest. It is important to remember that promises made at Christmas (or any other time!) can have repercussions later on.

This is a very complicated area of law, and each case is considered on its own strengths and merits. Gathering as much evidence as possible and discussing your situation with us as early as possible is essential in these cases.


If you or anyone you know would appreciate advice on property disputes between cohabiting couples, or any of the other topics we have covered in our 12 songs of Christmas, please contact Alex Haworth or Gemma Nicholls-Webber.


The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
Gemma Nicholls-Webber

Author: Gemma Nicholls-Webber

Managing Associate

Author: Alexandra Haworth

Senior Associate

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