Disentangling Unmarried Couples' Finances Can be Major Headache

Weddings are seen as arcane and unnecessary ceremonies by an increasing number of people who prefer to cohabit – but one High Court case has underlined how much easier it can be to disentangle separated couples’ financial affairs if they are married.

A wealthy couple had two children before their relationship ended in acrimony after about five years together. They had got engaged, and had been through a blessing ceremony, but their marriage had never been formally celebrated due to the man’s inability to secure a divorce from his wife.

Following the split, a dispute developed in respect of their respective interests in a number of valuable, but heavily mortgaged, properties. As they were unmarried, the wide discretion provided by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 was not available to the Court. The woman instead had to fall back on seeking relief under the Married Women’s Property Act 1882. The mortgage lender and an offshore company which held legal title to one of the properties became embroiled in the dispute.

After weighing up the contributions made by each of them to the establishment of the property portfolio, the Court found that the woman was entitled to two properties, together worth more than £5 million. After debts were taken into account, she was left with about £3.16 million from the relationship. The man was declared owner of another property and, after debts, had a net entitlement of just over £400,000.