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Landmark case is wake up call for co-habitees

Despite paying for the mortgage on the £340,000 house they shared for 10 years, providing her with financial support during her university course, paying for her mobile phone bill and buying her a brand new car, David Southwell is to pay his ex-partner Catherine Blackburn, whom he never married, £28,500 plus £50,000 in legal costs.

The court heard how Mr Southwell never intended to marry Miss Blackburn because he was well aware that should the marriage breakdown she could have a substantial claim against him.

Miss Blackburn argued that she did contribute to some utility bills, items for the house and food. But most importantly, she had "trusted him and believed everything he had said" thinking she would be secure. The court was told that when the pair met in 2000, Mr Southwell had assured Miss Blackburn that her and her two daughters would have a home for life.

Miss Blackburn was awarded the sum of money pursuant to property law principles that Mr Southwell had made this assurance and had offered her "the security a wife would have."

However, there is still no law in the UK which deals specifically with cohabitees if their relationship comes to an end. Reform in this area is slow and the law is simply not up to speed with the increasing number of couples who choose to cohabit rather than marry.

Following this decision, without any real rigour or a specific statute providing a clear and consistent approach, the Mr Southwells of the world could find themselves fighting for their wealth, and the Miss Blackburns of the world could be encouraged to fight for a share of the fortune "effectively as a wife" who "shouldered the major housekeeping activities."

Couples must be sensible. Cohabitees who start their relationship will naturally will feel it inappropriate and insensitive to have a conversation about what would happen if the relationship ended. Indeed, as Mr Southwell says "We were two people in love, we weren't thinking that the relationship would end."

Protect yourself from the very start by having those discussions, properly documenting them and having firm agreements.

At Atherton Godfrey we have a specialist team of Family Lawyers who can assist you in achieving this. Please do not hesitate to contact us on 01302 320621 or email info@athertongodfrey.co.uk for more details.

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