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A Valentine's Day Thought for Life Partners: What is a "Universal Partnership"?


"Marriage is the chief cause of divorce" (Groucho Marx)


This Valentine's Day, think about the legal aspects of your romantic relationship. They're a lot less exciting than the traditional declarations of love backed by chocolates and flowers, but they're just as important in ensuring a strong, committed life partnership in which both of you is clear as to how your respective financial and legal responsibilities are defined.


A recent High Court decision once again puts a spotlight on the fact that "life partner" couples are at ongoing legal and financial risk unless they sign both cohabitation agreements and updated wills.


The problem - there's no such thing as a "common law marriage"


Our law does not recognise the concept of a "common law marriage'. Either you are formally married, or you miss out on many of the legal protections available to married couples. The result - if you split, or when (not if) one of you dies, the less financially strong life partner could well be prejudiced, perhaps even left destitute after many decades of life together.


The solution - a cohabitation agreement with updated wills


Luckily these two documents give both of you quick and effective protection -

  1. A cohabitation agreement tailored to meet your particular circumstances and needs. It should at the minimum cover questions such as whose name assets and liabilities will be in, who will cover what expenses, how you will split your financial affairs if you part ways, your undertakings to each other regarding financial support and maintenance, parental rights and duties regarding children and so on.

  2. A will ("Last Will and Testament"). You could make two separate wills or one joint one but either way make sure to comply with all formalities to ensure validity and set out your respective wishes clearly and unambiguously. A vital (and all-too-often overlooked) aspect here is to diarise regular reviews of your will/s in case they need updating to take account of ongoing life and financial changes.


Let's turn now to a "second prize' alternative - proving a "universal partnership".


What is a "universal partnership" and how do you prove it?


If for whatever reason you don't have both a cohabitation agreement and wills in place, you may still have a "get out of jail free" card in the form of a universal partnership.


These extracts from the High Court judgment (formatting supplied) set out what you'll need to prove -

  • "A universal partnership is an agreement between individuals to share their property and their gains and losses. The partnership need not be formed for a commercial purpose.

  • It regularly comes into existence, whether expressly or tacitly, between unmarried cohabitees, although cohabitation is not essential.

  • The requirements for the existence of a universal partnership are the same as those for partnership in general.

  • Where a tacit universal partnership is alleged, a court will confirm its existence if the conduct of the parties is such that it is more probable than not that such a partnership agreement had been reached between them.

  • A partnership exists if "each of the parties brings something into the partnership or binds themselves to bring something into it, whether it be money, or labour, or skill"; if the agreement is struck for "the joint benefit of both parties"; and if the object of the partnership is material gain.

  • The question is ... whether, on evaluating those facts as a whole, the probable inference is that there was a universal partnership.


A bitter family fight shows why it's second prize

  • In the case in question, life partners had for 26 years shared all their assets "akin to a marriage in community of property". Importantly, they had shared the "benefits and burdens" of a number of property development ventures. They had, said the Court, each brought something into the partnership, her contribution being mostly financial, his (as an architect) mostly in "sweat equity". Their partnership was not just a life partnership, it "was also plainly at least partly about material gain."

  • Their relationship was terminated by the death of the one partner, who died "intestate" (leaving no will in place) after developing dementia. The other partner had suggested they each execute wills leaving everything to each other and he had done so, but she had declined as she was unwilling to contemplate her mortality.

  • Her daughter as executor of her mother's deceased estate refused to recognise any claim by the surviving life partner. Quarrels and evictions followed, with ultimately a hard-fought High Court battle.

  • The Court found that the survivor had on the facts succeeded in proving the existence of a universal partnership. Critically, it held that the parties' partnership "was also plainly at least partly about material gain' and that the surviving partner should anyway inherit half of the deceased's estate in terms of a principle previously accepted by our courts that "partners in a permanent life partnership in which the partners have undertaken reciprocal duties of a support are entitled to inherit as spouses would."

  • Accordingly, the survivor gets a full half of the deceased partner's entire estate, whilst the daughter is removed as executor and ordered her to pay the legal costs.


The winner is...


The bottom line however is that the element of "material gain" which so clearly applied to the joint acquisition of assets in this particular life partnership will be absent (or at least extremely difficult to prove) in many other cohabitation agreements.


First prize must therefore always be to avoid the risks, delay, stress and the cost of trying to prove the existence of a universal partnership and/or reciprocal duties of support by having in place both a comprehensive cohabitation agreement and a joint will or reciprocal wills.

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