Irwin Mitchell | Focus on Family | Still no such thing as a common law spouse

There is still no such thing as a common law spouse

In early March this year an appeal was heard in a case between an unmarried couple who had lived together for some years. Mr Burton appealed against a ruling that his former partner, Ms Liden, should have a little over £33,500 of equity in a property owned in his sole name.

The couple lived together in the house that had been Mr Burton’s matrimonial home before he divorced his wife in 2002. They were together from 2001 until June 2013. Through that period Ms Liden paid Mr Burton £500 a month – it was half of all a pension that she received from the Swedish Government because she had suffered an injury in the past.

There was an exhaustive analysis of who had said what to whom during the course of the relationship and what both parties intended, or understood when Mrs Liden made her regular significant payment.

Mr Burton did not help himself by denying that any payments had been made and where there were differences in the evidence given by the couple, the Judge at first instance preferred Ms Liden’s evidence as being accurate and truthful. She gave clear evidence that Mr Burton had said to her that if she did not contribute he would not be able to keep the house – he had had to mortgage it to buy out his ex wife. In fact Ms Liden did not know about the mortgage until they had been living together for a short while and when she discovered, she directly challenged Mr Burton to say that her £500 a month was going “towards the house”. Previously Mr Burton had simply characterised her payments as “rent”. Ms Liden thought her payments were securing her future and “investing” in the property.

The Judge at first instance agreed and calculated the proportion of the £500 that could have been available to her to invest and awarded some interest, giving her a total of £33,522. In fact that was not quite 10% of the equity in the property by the time the matter came to court.

Mr Burton’s appeal was dismissed on the basis that the Judge was accurate in finding that Ms Liden had believed that she was paying towards the house and might otherwise have made provision for her future.

The practical lessons to be learned from this case are that moving into somebody else’s property will always leave the non-owner vulnerable. It is difficult to insist on a written legal agreement in the context of an emotional relationship but without that the couple is very much left to the court trawling through years of remembered conversations, promises and discussions and trying to do the best it can to achieve fairness. Ms Liden’s claim was founded in proprietary estoppel on the basis that she mistakenly believed that she was acquiring a legal interest in the property, and the Judge said it would not have been fair to deny her a limited share.