Property law: Does our daughter’s boyfriend have a claim to our house?

During lockdown, my daughter and her long-term boyfriend moved into our house. While they were here, her boyfriend spent money refurbishing their bedroom and en-suite bathroom. He also contributed to utilities bills and helped out with the mortgage payments.

I’m worried he may have a financial claim to the property, which he might try and exercise should he and my daughter split up. What can we do?

While it is possible that your daughter’s boyfriend may file a claim to the property, the chances of this seem fairly remote. As it stands, he has made a financial contribution. Unless you agreed otherwise, it does not necessarily follow that he now owns part of the house. Were there any discussions about this while he was living with you?

There was no explicit written agreement, but my wife has said on several occasions that the house would be theirs one day — as we plan to give the property to our daughter once we retire and downsize.

Discussing ideas about gifting a property in the future is not the same thing as giving them the property now. However, you should both be careful about what you say. Further down the line, he could say he only made those contributions to your home because of promises you made to them.

Is there anything we can do to try to prevent these arguments arising?

The safest option would be to ask your daughter’s boyfriend to sign a “Declaration of No Interest”, which is a document that says, irrespective of somebody living in or paying money to a property, that they have no interest in it at all.

Whenever someone moves in or spends money on a property you should be explicitly clear about the reasons why they are doing so. A simple document recording who has an interest in a property is called a Declaration of Trust. It is a really flexible document — and can within reason record whatever is agreed and is usually binding.

Such documents are especially useful if someone is moving a new partner into an existing home, or if they are purchasing a new home together, but paying different amounts.

They are also useful to parents who want to help their children buy their first property with a partner. Then, if the relationship ever breaks down, there is no claim on the parents’ money. Depending on how it is structured, this could also be good inheritance tax planning.

Of course, these documents cost money, but that might only be a fraction of the potential costs — emotional, physical and financial — of a property ownership fight. The most succinct advice that I can give is, “If in doubt, write it down.”

James Carroll is a partner in the family team at London lawyers Russell-Cooke

I have recently inherited a listed country house, but it includes some rather ugly paintings and sculptures, and historic furniture, which I don’t like. I was going to sell them, but I am told they need to stay — is this true?

In principle, you can remove anything that is not fixed to the property so long as it is not covered under the listing. The problem is that all listed buildings are different and what is actually covered by a listing can vary quite widely.

You should therefore always review the wording of the listing as this will reference anything that cannot be altered and would need listed building consent to change.

But I thought only buildings could be listed, not the art or sculptures on the estate?

While only a “building” can be listed under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the term “building” has a very wide definition. It can include “any structure or erection, and any part of a building as so defined”.

In the past, the courts have held that sculptures, piers, urns and even paintings can be part of a listed building if they were fixed there as
part of the design and are part of the building’s special architectural or historical character.

Can’t we just “temporarily” move it to the shed?

If the feature is included in the listing, then it is a criminal offence to remove or relocate it without first gaining listing building consent from the district council. The penalty on conviction in a magistrates court is a fine of up to £20,000 or imprisonment for up to six months, or both.

Moreover, the council can issue an enforcement notice, which means that you must put the building back to its original condition. Failure to comply with an enforcement notice could see you landed with an unlimited fine in the crown court.

Sarah Jordan is partner and rural property head at Southampton-headquartered lawyers Moore Barlow

The legal issues discussed in this column refer to England and Wales. Scenarios have been compiled for illustrative purposes

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