Understanding Between Couple Regarding Work Done Creates Legal Obligation

Legal arguments between cohabitants who break up are commonplace. However, a recent case dealt with a lengthy legal dispute between the surviving partner of a gay couple and his deceased partner's family.

The couple lived in a property that was owned by the partner who died in March 2016 without making a will.

The dead man's brother and sister obtained letters of administration to deal with his estate and sought possession of the property in which he and his long-term partner had lived.

However, the surviving partner, whilst acknowledging that he had no formal legal title to the property, claimed that his occupation was the result of an agreement he made with his partner in 2012 that they 'pool their resources'. He had then spent money on the property and done work on it, which gave him a 'proprietary interest' in it. He claimed that he had been assured by his partner that, on his death, he would inherit the property. The brother and sister of the deceased man opposed this.

The surviving partner's mother, who was a widow, lived in a chalet in the grounds of a property in which he believed he had inherited an interest through his deceased father's will. The couple's plan was to live together in one property and let the other, refurbishing both properties with funds the survivor believed he had inherited.

Regarding the gay couple's intentions, the judge commented that '…one issue was not discussed. This was whether they were to share their property rights as beneficial joint tenants (with the benefit of survivorship on the death of the first to die) or as beneficial tenants in common (so that the share of each would pass on death under the applicable inheritance rules, testate or intestate, as the case might be). I find that they did not consider that. Probably they were unaware of its significance.'

The deceased man worked as a cabin attendant and was often away. His partner had done work which added more than £30,000 to the value of the property and did the large majority of the refurbishment work himself.

In the event, the judge found that the two men had formed a 'common intention' on which the surviving partner had relied to his detriment and that this created a 'constructive trust' in the property. A similar argument based on the legal doctrine of 'promissory estoppel' was also accepted.

In the circumstances, the appropriate resolution was that the property should be sold and, after any related debts were paid, the proceeds divided 50:50 between the surviving partner and the deceased's estate, after deducting a reasonable charge for his sole occupation after the death of his partner until he gives up occupation of the property.