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Cohabitation – Supreme Court rules on unmarried couples’ property rights

This related to an Appeal heard by the Supreme Court (the highest court in England and Wales). The Supreme Court reviewed the correct approach to calculating beneficial interests in property where the legal title to the property is held in joint names by an unmarried couple but there is no express statement of how it is to be shared.   The Supreme court allowed Miss Jones’ Appeal that she should get 90% of the former couple’s home, restoring the county court judge’s decision to depart from the traditional assumption that the beneficial interest in the property should be split 50/50.


The case involved hairdresser Patricia Jones and her former partner, ice-cream salesman Leonard Kernott. The couple split 18 years ago after living together in Essex for eight years. Mr Kernott left in 1993 and, Miss Jones remained in the property and raised the couple’s two children.  Miss Jones also continued maintaining the home and paying the mortgage.

The pair disagreed about how to split their £245,000 house. When the couple bought the property in Badger Hall Avenue in both their names, they took out a joint mortgage.

County Court Decision

Miss Jones issued proceedings to seek a declaration from the court that she owned the entire beneficial interest in the property (100%). At the first hearing, the county court judge decided that Miss Jones should have 90% and Mr Kernott 10%. This decision was appealed by Mr Kernott

Court of appeal decision

The Court of Appeal ruled that the County Court judge was wrong and that Mr Kernott was entitled to half the value of the home. The property was held in joint names so the parties therefore had joint beneficial interest in the property, and the parties had agreed when they separated that they had equal shares. Just because Mr Kernott had taken 12 years to seek his share did not mean that Miss Jones had acquired a greater than 50% interest in the property.  The court ruled that if Mr Kernott and Miss sJones had truly intended for Mr Kernott’s beneficial interest to reduce after the separation, then they would have acted accordingly and adjusted their beneficial interests. The decision was appealed by Miss Jones.

Supreme court’s decision

At a hearing in May 2011, the Supreme Court reverted to the county court judgment, ruling that Mr Kernott was only entitled to 10 per cent of the value of the property. The Supreme Court held that the parties’ intentions as to ownership had changed after their separation.  Click here to download full text of the Supreme court judgment.

Cohabitation law – Where are we following the decision of the Supreme court?

Jones –v- Kernott [2011]

In a case which affects Britain’s 2.3 million co-habiting couples, the Supreme Court’s decision means that a county court can decide the fairest way of dividing property when unmarried couples split up. As such, this is a step in the right direction but the judgment is a clear signal from the Supreme Court to Parliament that it needs to clearly define the rights of cohabitants.

However the government has still not changed the law and Parliament is yet to introduce legislation which protects the property interests of cohabiting couples in this country.

With no set legislative guidelines about what happens to property in such instances, the ruling raises the risk that local judges will have different interpretations of “fairness”. Each case will still have to be decided on its own individual facts.

If you would like further advice in connection with the matters raised in this article then please contact one of our family solicitors, Miss Vincent or Miss Booth on 01926 422 101.

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