What do you mean, my ex still co-owns my house?

When a relationship breaks up, sometimes the last thing you want to think about is going to see a lawyer to sort out your property formally. But when it comes to valuable assets – particularly your house – it is important to make sure you know where you stand. Who owns what? Do you have ongoing obligations? What happens if one person dies and the estate wants to sell an asset that, on paper, still belongs to both of you?

The latter situation was the basis of a recent case in the High Court. Ms Bunyan and Ms Parish had a relationship for a couple of years in the mid 90s, and Ms Parish became a joint owner of Ms Bunyan’s house. Ms Bunyan handled the majority of the outgoings, but Ms Parish contributed slightly under $9,000 towards house expenses. She was also a joint mortgagor (which meant she would have been equally liable to the bank if the couple had ever fallen behind with payments)

When their relationship broke up in 1996, Ms Parish signed a document saying that she had no claim to the house. She did not contribute to the house from then on, and also did not ask for anything from Ms Bunyan. Ms Bunyan paid off the mortgage on her own.

Looks like a clean split? Not quite. After all, Ms Parish was still listed as a co-owner on the title. So when Ms Bunyan became ill and died, her executors needed to go to the court to decide whether Ms Parish – now called Mr Nova – had any claim on the house.

The Judge calculated what contributions each party had made, and came up with a formula for deciding how much Ms Bunyan’s executors should pay Mr Nova for his share of the house, or whether he owed the estate any money, and if so, how much. Given the rise in house prices since the couple had split, it wasn’t likely that Mr Nova would get anything out of it. A perfectly sensible result. However, twenty years down the track, getting evidence about who had paid for what wasn’t exactly straightforward, particularly when some of the key participants had died. Also, everybody could have done without the uncertainty and the cost of going to court.

The moral of the tale is that while it’s a tough thing to do, it’s better to make sure things are straightened out at the time of a relationship split to save hassles down the track.