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10-minute brief: Living together during lockdown

Thinking about moving in together? Pause for some legal advice before breaking out the champagne and box sets

Couple in Love

Love, relationships and living together are complicated at the best of times. In the topsy-turvy world of the pandemic and a national lockdown, life is even more complex. While legal restrictions on our personal lives are driving some partnerships to breaking point, for couples trying to maintain a meaningful relationship over Zoom, the idea of living together permanently is pretty tempting – especially if you think your prospective live-in-partner is suitably domesticated (finding random socks – total romance killer).

If you are planning on living together during lockdown (and hopefully beyond) – we say hurray! But take note too, says Zoe Culverwell, family solicitor at top Hampshire law firm Paris Smith LLP: like all big life decisions, living together can have legal implications. Being clued up about any potential pitfalls before taking the co-habiting plunge could avoid costly financial consequences further down the line, especially when it comes to property.

It’s not the sexiest conversation to have – especially if you’re still in the sweet nothings phase – but it’s pretty clear that a frank chat now could prove to be time well spent if things don’t quite work out like your favourite Richard Curtis movie. Zoe, it’s over to your top tips.

Zoe Culverwell Paris Smith legal advice
Zoe Culverwell, Family Solicitor at Paris Smith LLP

1. Know the legal implications of living together

As an unmarried couple, your claims against one another are limited. You don’t have the same rights as a married couple, who can claim against one another’s assets, income and pensions. However, there are potential legal implications of living together during the Coronavirus lockdown if one of you is a property owner: if financial or other significant contributions are made by a non-owning party to property held in the other party’s sole name then, under trust law, the non-owning party may be able to make a claim.

These types of claims generally happen where one person makes a financial or other significant contribution to a property held in the other person’s sole name. The non-owner could suggest that the contribution gives rise to a beneficial interest in the property – i.e. a share of the proceeds when it comes to be sold.

The current financial climate may well increase the likelihood of this happening. For example, a self-employed person may be struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for their employed partner, working from the comfort of the self-employed individual’s home and being paid as normal.

Not wanting to see their partner stressed or worrying about money, the employed individual offers to help. “Don’t worry”, they may say, “I can help you this month by paying half of your mortgage.” A supportive, kind and generous offer, but one that could, if accepted, cause all sorts of issues further down the line, when COVID-19 passes and the legalities of that fast-tracked cohabitation are interrogated.

It isn’t just contributions towards the mortgage that homeowners should be cautious about, either. The same claims can arise in relation to maintenance or decoration. If works are jointly undertaken which improve the value of the property, a beneficial interest may arise.

Woman list house move living together

2. Take time out to talk and be clear

The key, in all of this, is to be clear about the intention surrounding any financial contributions your partner may make towards your property. It may be that you always intended to discuss this, but the pace at which your cohabitation happened meant that this was overlooked. Communication is crucial; avoid leaving things on an uncertain footing. If you don’t want your partner’s contributions to give them an interest in your property, say so. Be frank and honest. These conversations aren’t always easy, but they need to be had.

3. Agree on paper with a Living Together Agreement

Once you’ve had those conversations, the next step is to formalise your intentions in a cohabitation or “living together” agreement. If drafted properly, this agreement will minimise as far as possible the opportunity for dispute and provide a simple, clear framework on how any dispute should be resolved – important for both parties.

The agreement will record who owns what at the start of the relationship, how any property acquired during the relationship will be owned, and who will be responsible for the mortgage/other property costs. It can also provide a framework for what will happen if, for example, the relationship breaks down, how the sale proceeds of a property will be divided, who will be liable for joint debts and whether one person should support the other.

4. Formalise temporary arrangements too

If living together during lockdown is a temporary arrangement, a cohabitation agreement is still worth considering – don’t assume claims won’t arise in the future. Discussing legal documents is nobody’s fun activity (unless you’re a solicitor!) but if your relationship does breakdown, you’ll be grateful that you took the time to address matters properly.

For advice about living together or help with an agreement, speak to a member of the Paris Smith Family team. Its page “Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Legal advice and guidance” is continually being updated with advice and guidance from Government and other regulatory bodies.

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