The number of unmarried co-habiting couples in England and Wales has increased significantly over the past decade (the office for National Statistic figures show a 25.8% rise) and they are now believed to be the fastest growing family type. With this societal change there is an ever-increasing need for people to consider their financial situations and who they would like to inherit from their estate when they die.
When someone dies without a Will, the rules of intestacy apply and only spouses, blood relatives (or in absence of both of these, the Crown) will inherit their estate. This means that in English Law unmarried partners do not automatically have the right to receive anything from an estate and in some circumstances, an unmarried partner could find themselves being asked to leave their home shortly after losing their loved one so that the property can be sold or transferred to the beneficiary/ies.
Life is far from predictable and so not everyone will have had the opportunity to create a Will before a death occurs, particularly when someone dies relatively young or unexpectedly. If you find yourself in a situation where someone you have been living with dies without a Will you may be able to receive some provision from their estate by negotiating a settlement with the estate beneficiaries. The first step is to consider whether, based on your circumstances, you are a potential claimant under the Inheritance Act 1975.
Who is a cohabitee under the 1975 Act?
A cohabitee is someone who during the whole period immediately before the date of death was living in the same household as the deceased in a relationship akin to being husband and wife.
What type of settlement could I receive as a cohabitee?
Under the terms of the Act, cohabitees are entitled to receive such financial provision as would be reasonable in all the circumstances for their maintenance. The courts have a wide discretion to make a range of orders including awarding a capital sum to the applicant or creating a life-interest in the estate property in their favour. In the case of Lewis v Warner (2017) it was held that the term maintenance included keeping a roof over someone’s head. Mr Thomas Warner was aged 91 and financially very well-off but suffered from ill-health. He had lived with his partner, Miss Audrey Blackwell, for nearly 20 years in a property she solely owned. Miss Blackwell was younger than Mr Warner and so they both believed that she would outlive him and there was no provision for him in her Will. Instead, Miss Blackwell’s daughter was the sole residuary beneficiary of her estate and she tried to evict Mr Warner from the estate property as she wished to use it herself. The court held that Mr Warner was entitled to purchase the property from the estate because it was important for his maintenance to continue residing in his home where he felt happy despite the fact he did not have a financial need.
How long do I have to make an Inheritance Act claim?
An application to court must be made within six months of the Grant of Representation being issued. Due to the short-time frame in which potential claimants can issue proceedings, if negotiations with the estate beneficiaries fail, we would strongly recommend that anyone affected by these issues seeks legal advice at the earliest opportunity.
Our ever popular talks will be returning in spring 2020 watch this space for more details.