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Former cohabitee loses claim for share in farm sale proceeds (High Court)

The High Court dismissed a former cohabitee’s (D) claim for a share in the sale proceeds of a farm, based on a common intention constructive trust or proprietary estoppel.

The landowner (G) bought the farm in his sole name, with a mortgage granted to him alone. G and D lived together at the farm and various renovations were carried out. After the relationship ended, G sold the farm and D claimed half of the sale proceeds, arguing that, before the purchase, the couple had agreed that:

  • G would buy a property, D would oversee its renovation and, if sold, they would split the profit.

  • The farm was their home for life and would belong to D, if G died.

The court found no such express agreement, nor could it infer one from the course of dealing between the parties. D had not contributed to the purchase price or mortgage. The purchase was G’s sole decision. Despite D’s significant work to the livery yard and farmhouse, G had funded the professional team and materials. D’s efforts were understandable given their relationship and planned future together, rather than indicating a quasi-commercial bargain. D’s expectation of remaining at the farm indefinitely had also not sprung from any assurance or conduct of G.

This case illustrates how property, rather than family, law applies to beneficial ownership disputes between cohabiting couples. Property rules are usually consensual: owners will not generally lose their existing rights without express or implied agreement. For a constructive trust, an owner must first intend to share the beneficial ownership. D had not proved G’s intention. While physical improvements can be detrimental reliance, making it unconscionable for the owner to renege on the agreement, D’s efforts were about making a home with G, rather than relying on the alleged agreement.

Case: Dobson v Griffey [2018] EWHC 1117 (Ch) (10 May 2018).

PLC Practical Law 31.5.18