STACK v DOWDEN

When a long-term relationship founded upon fierce independence to the exclusion of marriage reaches breaking point, the effects of separation are altered through the sale of the family home.

Where domestic legislation lends assistance to the courts under the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 and Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, there was, at the point of this hearing, no legal framework within which the division of proprietary rights could be easily established where no declaration of trust had been officiated.

Having met as a young couple before sharing a home together, the title of the first property was held for the respondent, after a sole purchase made with a considerable cash investment and the remainder by way of mortgage.

During the next decade, the two parties created a family and began raising four children out of wedlock, while maintaining to all effects, separate financial accounts.

Through the course of their time in residence, there were a number of improvements made to the property, and while the appellant laid claim to the majority of the work, it was proven undeterminable, and thus assumed as equally contributed to. 

When the time came to sell the home, there had been a significant profit made in favour of the respondent, which was immediately reinvested in their second home; whereupon the couple entered into a joint purchase under secured borrowing for the remaining balance, before registering the new house under equal ownership.

In the absence of any declaration of trust, the couple opted to include a survivorship declaration that provided for absolute ownership under the death of either party.

During this period, the financial contributions were again favourable by some margin, to the respondent, although there was increased investment on the part of the appellant.

Less than ten years later, the couple decided to separate, and it was agreed that the appellant would leave the home and seek residence elsewhere, for the sake of the children and domestic stability.

As part of this agreement, the two parties underwent civil proceedings, where it was settled that in consideration for his leaving, the respondent would make specified monthly payments to help subsidise the appellant’s living costs under the terms of the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996, until such time as the sale of the house was complete.

It was after the failed renewal of the monthly payments, that the appellant sought claim for equal division of the sale proceeds, upon grounds that they had entered into the purchase of the second home as joint owners, and so under the principle of common intention and the legality of the conveyance, he was entitled to half the value of the sale, despite any claim to the contrary.

In the original hearing, the judge assessed the arguments through the essence of a working partnership, and chose to place greater weight upon the perceived intentions displayed when raising a family and managing their financial obligations; thereby ignoring the division of equitable wealth and awarding a fifty-fifty distribution of the sale funds to both parties.

Upon appeal, the Court took a wholly different view, and took pains to calculate the proportion of investment shown by the couple during their time in the home; ultimately arriving at a sixty-five to thirty-five percent division, along with the cessation of compensatory payments, in lieu of his premature departure and relocation of residence.

When bought before the House of Lords, the discussion revolved around the complexities of unmarried couples, and the often misleading nature of common intention when needing further detailed evidence as to the minds of those in contention.

It was also agreed that while the appellant had enjoyed the security of monthly payments, his removal from the home was agreed under the terms of the Family Law Act 1996; and so, any claim brought against his non-payment was fatal to observance of the applied statute.

With regard to the readjusted percentages, the House held that at best, the figure might be recalculated within a minor percentage; however, the strength of the respondent’s evidence as to her financial investment, remained as convincing as it was in the appeal.

And so, aside from any idea that a resulting trust could have been argued for in respect of beneficial interest, the outcome required no further interference, while

“[I]n a case of sole legal ownership the onus is on the party who wishes to show that he has any beneficial interest at all, and if so what that interest is. In a case of joint legal ownership it is on the party who wishes to show that the beneficial interests are divided other than equally.”