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Cohabitation during lockdown – what are the legal implications?

After the government suggested that couples may like to lockdown together, many couples jumped into a cohabitating relationship far quicker than they might otherwise. But how many have considered the legal implications of cohabitation during lockdown? For example, if your partner moved in with you during lockdown, and they stay, could they have a claim against your home?

As an unmarried couple, your claims against one another are extremely limited. You do not have the same rights as a married couple, who can claim against one another’s assets, income and pensions.

However, couples can get into difficulty in relation to property, where claims can be made under trust law.  They arise, generally, where one party makes a significant financial or other contribution to a property held in the other party’s sole name. The non-owning party could suggest that the contribution gives rise to a beneficial interest in the property, i.e. a share of the proceeds when it comes to be sold.

This is particularly relevant now, when many couples are facing financial pressure. An innocuous offer to assist with mortgage payments at a time of financial pressure, could, if it continues, result in a potential claim further down the line.

It isn’t just contributions towards the mortgage that homeowners should be cautious about, either.   A claim could potentially arise in relation to maintenance or decoration if it substantially improves the value of the property.

There is also a potential claim which can be made against the estate of a cohabiting partner, in the event of their death, under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants Act 1975).  This could apply if where there is evidence of dependency, or where the parties lived together as husband and wife for two years immediately prior to the death.   Interestingly there is no equivalent law applicable during the parties’ lifetime.

How can you deal with the legal implications of cohabitation during lockdown?

The key to navigating the legal implications of cohabitation during lockdown is to be clear about the intention surrounding your financial arrangements, and in particular, any financial contributions your partner may make towards your property. It may be that you always intended to discuss this, but the pace at which your cohabitation happened meant that this was overlooked. Communication is crucial; avoid leaving things on an uncertain footing. If you do not want your partner’s contributions to give them an interest in your property, say so and get it recorded in writing.

We would recommend that you formalise your intentions in a cohabitation or “living together” agreement. If drafted properly, such an agreement will minimise, so far as possible, the opportunity for dispute and provide a simple and clear framework as to how any dispute which may arise should be resolved.   It would also be of good evidential value to prevent a claim being made against your estate.   Because it sets out intentions and provides far greater certainty, it should be of mutual benefit to both parties.  It can record a variety of details, including who owns what at the start of the relationship, how any property acquired during the relationship will be owned and who will be responsible for the mortgage and any other property costs. A cohabitation agreement can also provide a framework for what will happen if the relationship breaks down or if one of you dies. It can deal with how the sale proceeds of a property will be divided, who will be liable for joint debts and whether one person should support the other.   If your intentions change over time, this too should be recorded.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss the legal implications of cohabitation further, please contact one of our experts.

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