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Unmarried Couple’s Property Rights in England and Wales

Last updated Nov 17 2023 | Family Law

by Theresa Wright

by Theresa Wright

Head of Family Law

In this article

A brief history of home ownership

Historically, homeowners would be the male in a relationship and the female would move in following marriage. Women would have to give all rights over their property to their husbands. During the early 1800s, it was typical for married couples to stay together, and divorce was relatively rare.

1882 saw the introduction of the Married Woman’s Property Rights Act in England and Wales giving women the right to own, sell and buy property. This caused an influx of divorce due to women gaining newfound security.

Cohabitation didn’t become widespread until the 1970s, but even then, society still frowned upon it for women.

This leads us to today. Marriage isn’t a necessity for moving in together, and each party can own individual shares in the property.

Although we’ve come a long way, the law surrounding property is still very complex and can be dependent on many different elements. This is why it’s always best to speak to a solicitor about your case.

Buying a property together as an unmarried couple

Homeownership is open to all kinds of relationships regardless of marital status. This includes friends, family, cohabitants, married couples, single people and more. If you’ve got the means for it and can meet certain criteria, you can own a property.

The process of buying a house is largely the same as an unmarried or married couple. But your rights over the house will vary depending on which type of tenancy you choose.

For older couples, it’s also important to consider who the property goes to if one of you were to pass away unexpectedly.

What if you contributed unequal amounts to the house?

You might find that when it comes to buying a property, you and your partner don’t have equal means. For example, one person might be able to contribute £10,000 towards a deposit, and the other £5,000.

You’ll need to have an open conversation about how you’d both like to own the house. Keep in mind that this also influences the division of your home if you break up. There are a few ways that owners can split home ownership.

Joint tenants vs tenants in common

Joint tenants – This is the most common option for homeowners. It means that regardless of each person’s contributions, you both own half of the property.

You must also make joint decisions about the property which may be difficult if things become strained!

Tenants in common – This is a good option for couples contributing different amounts towards the house and who wish for this to be reflected in their share of the property. However, it is commonly still 50/50.

A Declaration of Trust goes hand in hand with being tenants in common. Your solicitor will draft your Declaration of Trust to set out who receives what share of the property.

Being tenants in common gives each owner more control over what happens to their share of the house.

  1. Each owner can choose what happens to their share of the house when they pass away. This is opposite to being joint tenants, where the house automatically goes to the other owner.
  2. You can request to have separate mortgages altogether, although this isn’t a common setup.
  3. You can remortgage and take out loans on your share of the house without consulting with the other owner.

You can change your ownership type if needed. For example, if you’re joint tenants but then split up and have children with other people, you can change to tenants in common to ensure your shares of the house are split fairly between all the children.

What happens to our property if we split up?

It’s up to you what you decide to do with the property if you split up. Some of the options include:

  • Selling the house and splitting the cost accordingly
  • One person buys the other person out
  • Both people pay the mortgage, but one person stays in the house and covers bills and maintenance
  • Keep the house but rent it out
  • Transfer the house into one sole name
  • One person stays in the house with any children until they grow up

There are many more ways people can deal with jointly owned property. Of course, things can become much trickier if you’re on bad terms or disagree about what to do going forward.

Getting married after buying a house

If you get married after buying a house, your house becomes a matrimonial asset shared between you, regardless of a Declaration of Trust.

To set out specific ownership of your house, you will need to get a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement.

What if we split up and disagree about the property?

It’s not uncommon for there to be property disputes when a relationship breaks down. It can be extremely hard for people to let go of their homes, which can conjure up a lot of emotions and distress.

These kinds of disagreements could be about who can stay in the house, the selling of the house or the ‘fair’ share of the house once it’s sold.

Any initial agreements made upon the purchase of the house don’t necessarily remain valid.

The court considers many factors when making decisions about the property. Things can become especially difficult with the involvement of children. The court will always make decisions based on the welfare of the child.

Unmarried couple’s property rights when renting

When you’re renting there’s a lot less complication for unmarried couples. There’s more of an emphasis on the practicalities of renting rather than the legalities.

For example, if you rent a place together, you’ll buy all your furniture, share the bills, and maybe have a pet. Hopefully, you would be able to sort these things out between you if you were to split up.

The person named on the tenancy agreement can stay in the property. The other person will need to look for somewhere else to live.

If both names are on the tenancy agreement, you can speak to your estate agent about ending the tenancy or changing the tenant name.

When it comes to living with your partner, there’s a lot to consider, whether you’re buying or renting. It can feel overwhelming and confusing trying to understand your position. If you need help and straightforward legal advice about unmarried couple’s property rights, you can book a consultation with us.

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Like it, share it.

If you found the contents of this blog useful, please feel free to share it on social media. Sharing our article helps others in need find the same information.