The recent case of Dobson v Griffey ([2018] EWHC 1117) has highlighted yet again the different rules which apply to unmarried couples.

The case concerned a Jacqueline Dobson and Matthew Griffey. They met in 2005, when they were 38 and 40 respectively. Both of them had been married and divorced.  They decided they wanted to live together. Marriage was never discussed. They put their own houses on the market, they looked at properties together and in 2006 Mr Griffey bought a farm near Oakhampton in Devon. He spent £100,000 of his own money on it. Ms Dobson did physical work on the farm but she did not contribute financially. In 2011 the relationship broke down and in 2012 Ms Dobson left the farm.  Mr Griffey later sold the farm and Ms Dobson claimed half the proceeds. 

When a marriage breaks down, the court looks at the assets which the couple have and divides them up as it thinks fit. However, where the couple concerned did not get married, then a claimant has to fall back on the general law. In this case, Ms Dobson asserted:

  1. The property had been purchased as a home for the two of them and it was agreed between them that half the property belonged to Ms Dobson. The property had only been put into Mr Griffey’s sole name because it was easier to obtain a mortgage that way;
  2. Ms Dobson had only done the work on the farm because Mr Griffey led her to believe she was part owner and as a result he could not go back on his word;
  3. Mr Griffey had promised Ms Dobson it would be her home for her life.

The law takes property rights very seriously and any assertion that rights have been acquired informally requires decent evidence, on the balance of probabilities, to back it up. The problem for Ms Dobson was that that evidence, other than her own word, simply did not exist.   There were plenty of contemporaneous emails between the couple but nothing to support an agreement as to property rights between them. Indeed, there was an email from Ms Dobson complaining that Mr Griffey had made every decision himself. All the financial records supported Mr Griffey. In the end, the court considered that she had not been able to prove her case and they did not award her any share of the proceeds of sale of the property.

This case is a reminder that the law applicable to unmarried couples is strict and that if you are not named as the owner of a property in the deeds then you need to have good evidence to support a claim to ownership.

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