Pam Douglas is a solicitor with local firm Wainwright & Cummins. Each month, her column takes a common legal issue and explains it for readers
Over the years, I have quite often crossed paths with individuals, mainly women, who have been worried about their spouse selling their home without their consent.
It’s a concern for many older women who often left money matters to their husbands, as tradition dictated, and subsequently find that they are not named as an owner on the Land Registry Title.
The same situation can also occur when a couple marry and move into a property that was previously bought by just one of them. Sometimes the omission of a spouse’s name is just an oversight. But sometimes it’s deliberate and the intentions are quite sinister.
It’s easy enough to check who owns your home by undertaking a Land Registry search online and paying a small fee. The Title Register will tell you who owns it, how it’s owned and whether or not there are any charges or mortgages secured against it.
If it is owned by both of you, it will tell you whether you own it as “joint tenants” or “tenants in common”. In the first case you both own it 100% and if one of you dies, the whole property would automatically pass to the other.
In the second case, you own it in shares, usually 50% each, and you are each free to bequeath or transfer your share to whoever you choose, (with the mortgage lender’s consent in the case of a transfer).
If you are married and find that your name is not on the Title Register of your matrimonial home, you should consider registering your “matrimonial home rights” under the Family Law Act 1996.
It’s a relatively simple process and the registration is free of charge. Doing this will prevent your spouse from being able to sell the property without your agreement and give you the legal right to occupy it. It will also prevent your spouse from securing any loans against the property such as a mortgage without your consent.
You should be aware, though, that your spouse will be notified by the Land Registry, so you might want to discuss it with them first. It will also be a more complicated matter if you find that people other than your spouse are named as co-owners.
I recently met an older woman whose controlling and domineering husband was determined to sell their mortgage-free home against her wishes and use the proceeds to start a new life overseas. She was already registered as an owner of the house, having bought it with him many years earlier as joint tenants. But, there were obviously tensions and difficulties within the relationship that made any discussion of the issue problematic.
All joint owners, whether joint tenants or tenants in common are required by law to consent to the sale of a property and they cannot be forced to sell without a court order. So, of course, she could have just stood her ground and refused to comply, but the relentless pressure was causing her severe anxiety and distress and there was no easy solution.
If you are in a similar situation and mediation is not an option or has not been successful, a drastic option might be to unilaterally sever the joint tenancy, holding the property instead as tenants in common. This would mean that you would each receive a percentage of the net sale proceeds.
The realisation of a significantly reduced relocation budget might cause the bullying spouse to abandon their plans due to lack of financial viability. However, you must be sure that, should the sale go ahead, you can adequately re-house yourself with your share of the proceeds.
As well as the impact on your personal life and future financial security, there might also be Inheritance Tax implications if you remain in the house and leave your share to children under your will, so legal advice is highly recommended before taking such a step.
The rules relating to property ownership for unmarried couples are different and I haven’t included them here, but it’s still possible to take legal steps to protect yourself. Finally, if you own or have an interest in a property and you suspect or are worried about potentially fraudulent activity, you can sign up to the Land Registry’s free alert service which will notify you of any applications associated with it.
Details can be found online. As usual, please get in touch if there’s anything I can help with.