The significance of a decade old conversation in a pub for separating cohabiting couples

20 March 2019

The recent case of Horn v Chipperfield raises questions over how the courts will treat joint assets on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship. Mr Horn was appealing against a decision at first instance that awarded Ms Chipperfield a 50% share in their house.

Mr Horn and Ms Chipperfield never married but had been in a committed relationship for 15 years and had two children together. Ms Chipperfield was a midwife and put her career on hold to care for their children. Mr Horn had a high paid job as a CEO and was the main bread winner. In 2006 they purchased a house in joint names with Ms Chipperfield only contributing £39,000 of the £280,000 deposit, and Mr Horn contributing the rest.

After the couple split up, Mr Horn sued Ms Chipperfield claiming that the majority of their £1 million house belonged to him despite it being in joint names. Ms Chipperfield explained to the court that it was always their intention that the house was owned jointly, and referred the court to a conversation she and Mr Horn had had in a pub 13 years ago, when Mr Horn told her that they were "50:50 owners" and that she was now responsible for half of the debt incurred in purchasing the house. Mr Horn agreed that the conversation had taken place but that his words should not be taken literally.

The judge held that Mr Horn had failed to acknowledge Ms Chipperfield's sacrifices in terms of her career and her contributions towards the family finances, including investing the entire proceeds of a property sale previously owned. He stated that, contrary to Mr Horn's assertions, his words were to be given their literal meaning, which was also their natural and ordinary meaning and that he clearly intended that the ownership of the house would be shared in those proportions.

This High Court decision calls into question previous case law and raises queries over the importance of verbal promises and what should happen to shared assets on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship.

Read case: Bailii - Horn v Chipperfield case




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