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Cohabitation and ownership of property

Cohabitation and co-ownership has many facets – it covers unmarried couples (heterosexual and homosexual), friends, and families who for social, cultural, convenience, or financial reasons have decided to live and/or or buy together. We will see an increase in cohabitation and co-ownership with the stigma of ‘living in sin’ being eroded and the astronomic property prices making buying on your own a diminishing dream.

Given the serious legal implications it is always advisable to put everything in writing – who owns what; but the reality is that this rarely happens given the context that properties are purchased in these situations.

The most common type of dispute will be over who owns the property. The starting point will be legal title – i.e. what is on the official title of the property. But you may well have a share (called beneficial interest) even if your name is not officially on the title.

There can also be disputes about the share you actually own. Where a property is held in joint names then the law will presume equal shares in the first instance. But this may not in fact reflect the agreement/intention or reality between parties who claim unequal division of the property.

Finally we see many disputes when one party has left the property and wants sale, whereas the party remaining in occupation will not.

In the recession with the slowdown in property prices, many people did nothing after separation or falling out due to little or no equity in the property. With the steady increase in property prices again, there is now something worth fighting for and we are seeing an increase in these types of disputes.

Buying a property is probably the biggest investment you will make. You need to protect that investment (now and in the future) and having a written agreement with your co-owners will minimise and hopefully avoid conflict. So the golden rule is always to get legal advice early on. It’s never too late, however, if you are thinking about making an application or have had an application made against you. Take action.