Landmark judgement on common-law couple

Solicitors across Britain and Northern Ireland will have been paying close attention to the case of Mr Stack v Ms Dowden, as judges ruled that the unmarried couple should have equal rights to a share of their home, according to the Times.

Previously, unwed co-habitants were not given the same rights as married couples when it came to dividing property assets, yet the House of Lords ruled that since the house was put in both names, they should split it equally.

As with married couples who want to divorce, the Law Lords took into account how much each partner contributed financially to the relationship.

Barry Stack and Dehra Dowden had lived together for 20 years before they split, initially in a house paid for by Ms Dowden through her savings and a mortgage taken out in her name.

Then ten years later they bought another property in both their names using funds from the sale of their previous home, plus another mortgage and savings, mostly financed by Ms Dowden, who earned more than Mr Stack.

When Mr Stack vacated the house, he won a court order entitling him to half of the house. Ms Dowden then won an appeal entitling her to 65 per cent of the estate, since she had contributed more money in the first instance, but the Law Lords said that otherwise a 50:50 divide would apply.

Francis Wilkinson, Mr Stack's barrister, commented on the landmark ruling: "What is clear is that there is a new foundation, and a new structure upon it, for the determination by courts of the shares of separating cohabitants in property they jointly own."

Mr Stack and Ms Dowden have run up huge court bills in this case because they failed to draw up a 'declaration of trust', which would have clarified their joint ownership.

Mr Wilkinson concluded: "If nothing else, this judgement should give encouragement to all couples buying a home together without marriage or civil partnership to state clearly, either on the Land Registry transfer form or on a separate deed, the shares in which they own their new home.

"The legal costs of those are insignificant compared with the costs of going to court to sort it out later."

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