Curran v Collins [2015] – woman unable to establish beneficial interest in her former partner’s properties or business after 33 year relationship.

When couples divorce, businesses and properties (regardless of whose name they are in) form part of the assets to be shared and are a central part of financial proceedings and discussions on divorce. However, when cohabiting couples separate, the position is not as straightforward. The recent case of Curran v Collins [2015] shows the legal burden which is placed upon former cohabiting couples during separation as they are required to prove that they are entitled to a share of any assets solely owned by their previous partner.

The case concerned the 32/33 year relationship of Ms Curran and Mr Collins. Ms Curran sought to assert a beneficial interest in a property named ‘The Haven’ and that she was in fact a partner in a kennelling business. As the properties were in Mr Collins’ sole name, due to case-law and existing legal principles, Ms Curran had to prove that she was entitled to a share and show:

  1. That she reasonably believed that the parties’ common intention, to be deduced from the whole course of their conduct in relation to the properties, was that she was to have a share in the properties.
  2. That she had acted to her detriment in reliance of that common intention.

Ms Curran’s case was that there was an agreement that she would have a half share in the properties and that due to this agreement she made financial contributions including paying household bills, mortgage repayments etc. However, the judge made no finding to support this. Ms Curran also sought to use evidence in the form of Mr Collins’ Will which left his estate to Ms Curran on death however this argument was not raised at trial. Ms Curran also mentioned that when she confronted Mr Collins about why she was not a joint owner he provided the excuse on the basis of the cost of life insurance policies. Ms Curran argued that this excuse implied that he considered her to be a joint owner of the properties.

In relation to the business, the judge in the first hearing found that Ms Curran’s argument that she had ‘done all of the paperwork’ was not correct and all she had done in relation to the business was attend to the registration of the dogs whereas Mr Collins had done the accounting records and tax returns.

Ms Curran sought to appeal the decision made by HHJ Marshall QC at the first hearing however her appeal has now been unanimously dismissed and during the appeal decision Lewison LJ considered that Mr Collins’ excuse in relation to life insurance policies was simply an excuse rather than an intention that Ms Curran was a joint owner of the said property. Lewison LJ also found that Mr Collins’ Will merely showed that Ms Curran would have an interest on Mr Collins’ death and this was not an assurance that she had a present interest in the property. In his conclusion, Lewison LJ referred to the observation made by Lady Hale in the case of Stack v Dowden:

“The burden will therefore be on the person seeking to show that the parties did intend their beneficial interests to be different from their legal interests, and in what way. This is not a task to be lightly embarked upon. In family disputes, strong feelings are aroused when couples split up. These often lead the parties, honestly but mistakenly, to reinterpret the past in self-exculpatory or vengeful terms. They also lead people to spend far more on the legal battle than is warranted by the sums actually at stake. A full examination of the facts is likely to involve disproportionate costs.”

In “single name” cases between former cohabiting couples, such as Curran v Collins, it is increasingly difficult to satisfy the burden of proof and prove a common intention and detrimental reliance on that intention. A Cohabitation Agreement is a way to avoid such uncertainty over ownership and sets out clearly who owns what and what would happen if the relationship were to end.

Our specialist lawyers in our Altrincham or Manchester offices can talk you through your options and help you to decide which option would be the right decision for your situation. Please contact us on 0161 927 3118 for a free 20 minute consultation