‘My ex changed the locks and now I have to rent. Will the law help me?’

Dear Gary,

I ended an 18-year relationship with my partner. We were not married, but we did jointly own a house with no mortgage. He changed the locks one day while I was out and I have been unable to gain access since. The police were not interested. After sofa surfing for two weeks I managed to find a flat to rent and I am paying for it out of my savings.  

Months after changing the locks, he allowed a removal firm to collect a pre-arranged list of my belongings. I received only three quarters of what was on my list even though I have proof I purchased them. I have not been allowed any of our furniture.  

He still owes me money from a previous house sale, which he is refusing to give me. I’m 60 and cannot work because of the stress. He is ignoring letters from my solicitor and I think his aim is to financially cripple me.  

Do you have any recommendations for a constructive way forward for me?

Rachel, by email

Gary says:

What a very challenging situation you find yourself in. I hope the one small comfort at the moment is that your ex-partner’s terrible treatment of you has removed any doubt that you made the right choice leaving him. 

When a couple who are not married or in a civil partnership separate, the law around divorce is not relevant. As a result there is no potential claim for the sharing of all finances, including pensions and the like. Rather, your rights arise simply from the law of property. 

You say you own a house jointly. When you bought it you will have made a “declaration of trust” to say how what lawyers call the “beneficial interest” should be held between you. 

The options given will have been to be “joint tenants”, which equates to equal ownership even if you made different financial contributions and also means that if one of you dies the house will automatically pass to the survivor, or “tenants in common”, which means that you can declare either equal or unequal shares and that if one of you dies that person’s share passes under their own will.

Even if you originally declared that you were joint tenants you can now unilaterally sever it so that you become tenants in common, which would protect your share if you die while this is ongoing.

As a joint owner of the house, you can apply to court for a declaration as to the beneficial ownership and order for sale. It sounds like your solicitor has been laying the groundwork here, but, in the face of your ex ignoring the letters sent, you now either have to allow him to continue to control the situation or take control by issuing a formal claim under the Trusts of Land & Appointment of Trustees Act (Tolata). 

Please do not be passive here and let your ex get away with it. Given the circumstances you describe, the law is on your side. Unless your ex can show that it was always intended that he should be able to live there alone, or unless you have children he has responsibility for who need the house as their home (neither of which you mention in your question), I would expect you to succeed.

In addition, when you next contact your ex, there are four further points to make. 

One, given that it is entirely reasonable and lawful for you to ask for the house to be sold, you will claim your legal costs against him to be paid out of his share of the sale proceeds. 

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