As you will (we hope) already know, the law as it applies to unmarried couples is very different from that which relates to and protects married couples and civil partners when relationships break down. A recent case has given a salutary reminder of just how harsh the situation can be for people who share a life, a home, and a business but do not have the legal protection in place to look after their interests should the worst happen.
The case is Curran v Collins, and it was reported in the press back in 2013 when the first instance decision came out.
Pamela Curran and Brian Collins were in a relationship for 30 years, although they did not cohabit for all of that period. They lived together, bred Airedale terriers, and ran a kennel and cattery business. The house and the business were both in Mr Collins’ sole name, and that was the problem for Ms Curran. When they separated, Mr Collins agreed to pay £3,500 for half the value of the dogs, but denied that Ms Curran had any legal entitlement to the properties that they had lived in as a couple, or to the business. She issued an application to court for a judge to determine whether she had a share, and if so what it was.
It is worth a reminder here that when unmarried couples separate, the law provides that each of them generally owns all the property and assets in their own name. The concept of ‘fairness’, which applies to married couples and civil partners on divorce and dissolution, has no place in the strict property law that is still applied to couples who do not marry. There is one exception to this: if you have strong evidence that the legal ownership of property and assets “on paper” does not reflect your and your former partner’s actual intentions before you separated, then you might be able to establish that the law should go behind what is on paper and look at those intentions. This might be the case if you made a direct financial contribution to the purchase price of the property, or if there was a ‘common intention’ that you were entitled to share in the property, and you relied on that to your financial disadvantage.
So Ms Curran went to court to show that there was a common intention that she was to have a share of the house and buildings related to the business, and that she had acted to her detriment on the basis of that common intention. She said she had trusted that she would be provided with a “fair share” of the assets if the relationship broke down. She argued that she had worked in the business, making it a partnership, and that Mr Collins had made a Will leaving his property to her in the event of his death. She also said he had made an excuse for not putting the property into joint names which related to the cost of life insurance policies.
The judge could not find any evidence that she was a partner in the business, deciding that she only dealt with dog registration, not the business accounts or the day to day running of it. As for the Will, it did not show intention to share the property while the couple were alive, but only after Mr Collins’ death. The excuse about life insurance was to avoid Mr Collins’ embarrassment about keeping the house in his name rather than him saying “but for this, the house would be half yours”. So there was no joint intention that she was to have a share in assets. The judge had to ignore his “human sympathies” and apply the law.
Ms Curran appealed to the Court of Appeal. Her appeal was dismissed, so she will (in the words of the popular press) “walk away with nothing” from a 30 year relationship.
The Court of Appeal decided that the judge had been correct to find that Ms Curran had not made any direct financial contribution to the purchase of properties, and that her earnings had been too small to make any contribution to the mortgage payments. Mr Collins had been clear with her that the properties were in his sole name, so she could not argue there was a joint intention that they would be shared. The judge’s finding that Ms Curran did not work for the kennel business could not be faulted. It was accepted that she was involved in breeding and showing the dogs, but that was separate from the kennels and cattery.
It is worth mentioning here that when a trial judge makes findings based on the evidence and after hearing from the parties, it is very rare that an appeal court will dislodge those findings. Unless a trial judge can be shown to have been wrong in law or reached a conclusion which they could not have done on the evidence before them, their findings are likely to stand.
On the face of it, this is a very harsh decision, but it does serve as a stark reminder of the difficulties faced by the economically weaker person – not always but often a female, sometimes with children – when unmarried couples separate. The Law Commission has recommended reform in this area and Resolution continues to campaign for it, but with the new Government now in, it would perhaps be fair to suggest that the law is unlikely to change to better protect cohabitants any time soon. Then again, they did bring in same-sex marriage….
If you would like to talk to one of us about protecting assets or the likely effect of separating if you are unmarried, please get in touch for an appointment on 01223 443333.