Dobson – vs – Griffey and why you need a cohabitation agreement

A recent court judgement has underlined just how important it is for unmarried couples who live together to put a cohabitation agreement in place covering their finances. What you think is ‘fair’ when it comes to property you own as a couple may not be supported by the law.

The case of Jacqueline Dobson and Matthew Griffey concerns a couple who lived together and were never married. Mr Griffey bought a farmhouse in 2007, and Ms Dobson lived with him there. She carried out a lot of work on the property, as part of an ‘ambitious renovation project’ that Mr Griffey financed. Their relationship broke down in 2011 and she moved out in 2012. The property was put up for sale in 2012 but didn’t sell; Mr Giffey carried out more work before putting the property back up for sale in 2017.

Mr Griffey sold the renovated farmhouse in 2017, making a large profit. Ms Dobson sued him for half of the sale profits on the grounds that during a conversation they had at a pub while they were together, he had promised to split the property, giving her a ‘home for life’. The couple had bought the house in Mr Giffey’s name by agreement, as he was best placed to get a mortgage.

The property was bought on the understanding that it would be both of their home and that it would provide for them in their old age and retirement. Ms Dobson said that they had spoken about eventually selling the property and moving somewhere smaller with no mortgage. Mr Griffey also told her that the property would be hers if he died. Ms Dobson told the court that she had only agreed to the purchase on the understanding that they would split the profits of any eventual sale. 

Sadly, the couple had nothing in writing, and as they weren’t married, there was no family law protecting Ms Dobson’s interests. The only law that could be used to decide the case was property law, and the judge found that Ms Dobson hadn’t proved her case, so it was dismissed.

The judge accepted that Ms Dobson had put a “great deal of heavy and laborious work” into transforming the farm, but that she hadn’t done it for profit; she had done this in hope that she had a long-term future with Mr Griffey and any future children. As there was no evidence of any commercial agreement, and on paper, the decision to buy the farm was Mr Griffey’s alone, Ms Dobson wasn’t entitled to anything because she hadn’t paid anything towards the purchase price or the mortgage.

Judgements like this one just go to show unmarried couples need to have a cohabitation agreement in place to keep a record of any agreements made. If the worst happens, an agreement can be a part of any case taken to court. For advice, contact Vanessa Gillbanks at Gillbanks Family Law.

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