Living together, but not married: looming legal conflicts in case of a split

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What happens to the estate if a couple splits up that isn’t married? A recent court case sheds some light on a potentially complicated legal issue.

In a recent court case, an unmarried couple had split up and argued over real estate to which they had both contributed over a time span of more than a decade. While the real estate itself belonged to one of the two partners, the other had contributed substantially to building the house, and even involved their parents.

Investments in the construction of the house had included part of both partners’ savings as well as private and bank loans.

When the couple’s relationship ended, the question became how the property would have to be divided. As there was no marriage and no legal agreement over the estate, a legal battle ensued that the parties took across all instances right to the Supreme Court.

In its decision, the Supreme Court harked back to previous judgments. It pointed out that in the case of an unmarried couple, an estate can be divided if both partners have made substantial and comparable contributions that can be expressed as a value of money. Beyond that, a further condition is that both parties demonstrated the will to at least in economic terms create a lasting joint asset.

In plain language: an estate can be divided between two unmarried partners if there is proof of financially calculable contributions, and if there is evidence of the will of both parties to build something together—in the case at hand, literally build a house.

As the court pointed out, what matters in such a case isn’t the ownership situation at the time of the separation, but the ability of the parties to provide proof of the contributions they claim to have made. In this specific case, proof was required e.g. that the money one of the partners gained from selling their apartment actually went towards building the house.

The court also took hours worked on the house into account, basing this on statistically valid rates paid in the construction sector at the time the house was built. Should one of the partners be unable to provide clear proof of hours worked, the court still has the option to decide in the matter based on its own interpretation of the available evidence.

The gist of it is that without a legal agreement in place, and without the law setting out rules for the particular relationship a couple has opted for, it may be incredibly difficult to come to a fair ruling on who contributed how much—and how much each partner should be left with after the separation.

As at this point, the object of contention is often real estate, it pays to talk to an expert familiar with all the intricacies of the law beyond matters directly related to relationships and legal forms of cohabitation. For any and all questions regarding real estate, talk to Glikman Alvin LEVIN’s Pille Pettai. You can reach her at and +372 686 0000.

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