Seeing the recent case of the wife being able to bring financial claims against her ex-husband 30 years after breakup that has hit the media, has made me think about what happens with those couples who cohabit without marriage?!

There is no such concept as common law marriage that covers claims between cohabiting couples but the cases are clear that a former partner can bring claims for a share in the equity in a property years after they stop cohabiting there, even though the other person has remained living at and paying all of the outgoings at the property since then.

Take for example the case where a property was owned by a couple, but the male partner left and for the next 12 years made no contributions towards the property, leaving the female partner to pay for everything, particularly the mortgage. He was given a 10% share in the equity in the property by the court.

In another case a property was purchased in the couple's joint names but the male partner made no contribution to the purchase, left the property after 6 to 12 weeks and was uncontactable for a number of years. However, 13 years later he could be found pursuing a claim for a share of the property equity through the Court of Appeal. Sensibly, the court found that any intention at the time of purchase for the property to be owned in equal shares was changed when he abandoned the property and left him with no share of the net equity, but his former partner had still had to deal with those claims to get to the final result.

My final example is the case where a property was owned in one person's name and he made sure not to receive any financial contributions towards it from his cohabitee at the time because he had been caught out before. However during their relationship he did tell her that he would support her as if they had been married and she relied on this. The court found it unconscionable for her not to have any money from the property when they later separated and she had left the property, purely due to his promises of support, and so she got a lump sum payment.

I always advise my clients to make sure that, where they have an agreement with a partner or a former partner about how they own a property, they make that agreement clear by formally recording it, for example in a trust deed or a cohabitation agreement, and sticking to the terms of that formal document document. If they don't want the risk that a former partner will bring claims against their property after that person has moved out, then they should deal with this legally at the time.

There is a fee for preparing the relevant documents, but this is money well spent compared with the time and legal costs involved in defending a claim from a disgruntled former partner years later.