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Unmarried Couples Property Rights Court of Appeal confirms partner can buy house from estate

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The Court of Appeal has published its first ever decision involving a claim by an unmarried partner under subsections 1(1)(ba) and 1(1A) of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (the “Inheritance Act”). The unanimous judgment of the Court of Appeal in Lewis v Warner [2017] EWCA Civ 2182 is without a doubt the most important Inheritance Act decision since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ilott v Mitson last Spring.

The decision in Lewis gives further guidance on what a person can claim under the Inheritance Act and confirms that the courts will take a pragmatic approach to their rights considering all the circumstances of a case.

Background

The Court of Appeal decision is the latest in a long legal saga involving the estate of the late Audrey Blackwell (the “Deceased”), who died in 2014. The claimant, a nonagenarian by the name of Mr Warner, was the unmarried partner of the Deceased. The couple lived together in the Deceased’s house, known as Green Avon, for nearly 20 years. The Defendant, Mrs Lewis, was the sole daughter and heir of the Deceased.

A few months after the Deceased died, the Defendant sought to evict the Claimant from the property. The Claimant refused and then brought a claim for relief under the Inheritance Act, in which he requested permission from the court to remain at Green Avon.

At the County Court, Mr Recorder Gardner QC found that the Deceased had “maintained” the Claimant by putting a roof over his head. He ordered that the Claimant be allowed to purchase the property from the Defendant at (arguably £45,000 above) its full market value. In coming to his decision, the Recorder cited “the physical disability of the [Claimant], his age and the length of time that the house has been his home, and the fact that he made contributions to the costs of the home during that time” as well as “the location of the house … in the centre of the village where he grew up and has lived all his life, but also because it is located next door to neighbours who look after his welfare.”

The Recorder appears to have thought this was a pragmatic decision which suited the needs of everybody involved: the Claimant wanted to stay at Green Avon for personal reasons, and the Defendant seemed interested in selling Green Avon. Moreover, neither party was particularly interested in granting the Claimant a life interest (whereby the Defendant would own Green Avon but the Claimant could stay there until his death) even though this is often the solution in cases involving unmarried partners of a certain age.

The Defendant appealed to the High Court, which upheld the unusual decision. Mr Justice Newey found that the concept of “maintenance” had not been defined in law or by the courts, and that it was not limited to supporting a person’s costs of daily living. In this case, even though the Claimant was quite wealthy, he needed to reside at Green Avon to sustain his quality of life.

The Court of Appeal Decision

The Defendant took the case to the Court of Appeal, which again upheld the decision that Mr Warner should be allowed to purchase Green Avon for £385,000.

The Defendant’s two main arguments were that the Claimant had the means to live elsewhere and that the courts did not have the power to order Green Avon’s transfer for full market value or without any damages for trespass.

On the first point, the Court of Appeal held that the Claimant “was being maintained up to [the Deceased’s] death, and that he needed that maintenance to continue. … What is important is that, in the event, it was shown that the will of the deceased did not, taking into account all the relevant circumstances, make reasonable financial provision for Mr Warner’s maintenance after her death.” In other words, it was open to the Recorder to find that the Claimant needed to stay at Green Avon specifically, even though he could have afforded to live elsewhere.

On the second point, the Court found that the Inheritance Act allows for transfers of property in exchange for money. It was not necessary – although it would usually be the case – that an order under the Inheritance Act resulted in a transfer of value from a Deceased’s estate to a Claimant party. Sir Geoffroy Vos, writing for the bench, stated the following: “I asked [the Defendant’s barrister] where, in his submission, the line was to be drawn? Would, I asked, it be an admissible order to order a transfer at even £1 below value, but not at or above value? That, in the end, was his submission. But, in my judgment, the answer cannot be right … why should the exact amount of the purchase price matter?

The importance of Lewis v Warner

The Court of Appeal’s decision confirms that “maintenance” is a broad concept that varies according to the circumstances. A claim might be successful, even if a claimant is wealthy, if she or he requires a type of maintenance that cannot be bought with money. Lewis stands out because the claimant did not need just a roof over his head, he needed Green Avon. As a result, the case leaves open the possibility of a Court finding in a claimant’s favour without awarding any tangible financial benefit.

I look forward to seeing how Lewis will be treated in future decisions and whether its scope will be expanded beyond cases involving, as the Court of Appeal put it, attempts “to preserve the status quo for a very old and infirm person, who had been kept in a suitable house by the deceased for the nearly 20 years of their relationship”. It may be that, moving forward, both claimants and defendants will have to seriously consider whether there exist pragmatic solutions which meet all the parties’ needs – even if those needs are not purely financial.

If you have any questions about Inheritance Act claims, will disputes or challenging a will, please contact Nicholas Choiniere at 0113 336 3349 or by email at Nicholas.Choiniere@clarionsolicitors.com. If you need any help drafting a will, please contact our Private Client team.

 

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