Burns v Burns: unmarried cohabitees, title to family home in sole name

In Burns v Burns ([1984] Ch. 317, CA (Eng)) the couple were unmarried (though the woman had changed her  family name to be the same as her partner’s). They lived together for two years and had a child before buying the house that was to be the family home. Title was in the man’s sole name and he made all of the contributions to the purchase price and mortgage installments). Although the female partner contributed to household expenses (rates, phone bills, domestic fixtures and fittings and redecoration) these payments could not be said to have been necessary to allow the man to meet the mortgage payments. The couple lived in the home for seventeen years before separating. The female partner claimed to be entitled to a beneficial interest in the property under a common intention constructive trust.

The claim failed. There was no evidence of an express intention that she was to have an interest in the property. Nor had she made any payments that could give her an interest under a  resulting trust. It was not possible to infer the existence of a common intention constructive trust from the payments that she had made since they were not referable to the acquisition of the property (Fox LJ ). It would have been different if there had either been direct contributions to the purchase price or if her contributions to the household finances had been necessary to allow the man to make the mortgage payments.

The fact that the woman carried out domestic duties and looked after the children could not be taken into account: ‘the mere fact that the parties live together and do the ordinary domestic tasks is, in my view, no indication at all that they thereby intended to alter the existing property rights of either of them’ (Fox LJ at 331). May LJ made the same point:

‘when the house is taken in the man’s name alone, if the woman makes no “real” or “substantial” financial contribution towards either the purchase price, deposit or mortgage instalments by means of which the family home was acquired, then she is not entitled to any share in the beneficial interest in that home even though over a very substantial number of years she may have worked just as hard as the man in maintaining the family in the sense of keeping the house, giving birth to and looking after and helping to bring up the children of the union’ (at 345).

Michael Lower

 

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