Unmarried couples -Supreme Court Judgment on joint property.

14 October 2012

In this Judgment the Supreme Court in the case of Jones v Kernott has sought to clarify a complicated area of Law concerning the ownership of property held in the joint names of unmarried couples. This has long been a difficult area of the Law which has often resulted in outcomes which have been considered to be unfair. Fundamentally it results from the fact that unmarried couples are not governed by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, and other related legislation, which enables the Court to ensure a fair outcome for divorcing spouses. By contrast unmarried couples are thrown back on the general law of property which sometimes produces an expected result. Ms Jones and Mr Kernott bought a property together in Thundersley, Essex, in 1985. There was no declaration as to how they would hold the beneficial interest in the property. A small deposit was paid by Ms Jones and the mortgage and the upkeep on the house was shared between the couple and Mr Kernott carried out some renovation work himself. Following the breakdown of the relationship Mr Kernott moved out in 1993 and bought another house. The Thundersley property increased in value and in 2006 Mr Kernott sought his interest in that property. Ms Jones responded by saying that she felt that she owned the entire property, which, by 2008, was valued at £245,000.00. The County Court Judge supported Ms Jones's view and found that there was a presumption that the parties intended to share jointly the beneficial ownership up until Mr Kernott left in 1993. Thereafter however there was evidence that their common intention had changed. Mr Kernott had ceased to make contributions towards the running of the house and had provided only limited support for the children. It was also during this period that the property had increased more dramatically in value. The Judge decided that Mr Kernott was entitled to only a 10% share. Mr Kernott's appeal to the High Court was dismissed but he pursued the matter to the Court of Appeal which, by a majority, allowed his Appeal. Ms Jones appealed to The Supreme Court and their Lordships restored the decision of the County Court Judge describing it as "a fair one between the parties". The decision may create further uncertainty for unmarried couples who own property jointly but have not specified their beneficial interests. In those cases it seems that the Court will look at all of the circumstances in order to determine what it deems to be fair. The decision is likely to strengthen calls for a review of the Law in this area with a view to creating a statutory code which provides couples with greater certainty, as does the Law in Scotland. Gepp & Sons Family Law Partner, Steven Payne, said "this is a notoriously difficult area of Law in which unmarried couples may become unwittingly embroiled. Expert advice is critical at an early stage and couples should consider at the time of the purchase of a property what they intend to happen if their relationship breaks down. If they fail to do so they may not get what they expect when the relationship ends". If you are contemplating the joint purchase of a property or if you need advice about a property that you already own jointly with your partner the Family Law Team at Gepp & Sons will be pleased to help. Please contact us for a free initial consultation on 01245 228106 or paynes@gepp.co.uk.