If your home is owned by a loved one you may feel secure, but you can be left in an extremely precarious position if he or she dies. As an instructive High Court ruling showed, however, the law is fully capable of coming to your aid if you received lifetime promises of a permanent roof over your head.
The case concerned an overseas dignitary who had three wives. A property he owned in the UK had been occupied by one of them for over 30 years. She was not, however, bequeathed the property when he died. His son by another marriage, acting as administrator of his estate, served her with notice to quit.
After she launched proceedings, a judge found that her husband had on more than one occasion told her that the property was ‘her house’. Their marriage having been a long and stable one, she was entitled to understand such comments as providing assurances that the house would be hers to occupy for so long as she wished.
Had she not received such assurances, she would have purchased a property in her own name and, by spending £5,000 on replacing the property’s boiler, she had relied on her husband’s word to her detriment. The judge concluded that she was entitled to an equitable life interest in the property.
Challenging that outcome, the son argued, amongst other things, that the cost of the boiler was trivial when compared with the value of the property. Even if she could be said to have acted to her detriment, she had received the countervailing benefit of living in the property for many years rent free. A commercial rent on the property would have been in the order of £30,000 a year.
Dismissing the appeal, however, the Court noted that the woman’s own son had spent about £50,000 on renovating the property. To describe her occupation of the family home, where she had raised the children of the marriage, as ‘rent free’ was both inapt and unattractive. Granting her a life interest in the house was neither extravagant nor out of proportion to the detriment she had suffered in reliance on the lifetime assurances given to her by her husband.