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The law on relationship breakdown

This content applies to England & Wales

For cohabiting couples experiencing a relationship breakdown who are joint tenants or joint licensees, the relevant legislation is a combination of family and housing law.

Family law

The Family Law Act 1996 gives some cohabitants the right to apply for an occupation order of the family home. It also allows the court to order a transfer of liabilities in respect of a family home rented solely by one of the partners, and order a transfer of tenancy from one cohabitant to the other. The Children Act 1989 may also be relevant if there are children.

Housing law

The rights of cohabiting joint tenants to occupy the family home are governed by housing law. Housing law explains the status of occupiers and determines their rights to occupy. It lays down rules about assignment of tenancies, termination of tenancies and licences, and rights to protection from eviction. It contains rules that determine who is liable for rent and arrears. The relevant legislation in each situation will depend on the particular type of tenancy or licence.

This section does not look in detail at the different types of tenure. For more information about different tenancies and licences, see the Security of tenure section.

Joint tenancies and licences

A joint tenancy means that two or more people are the tenants of the property, even though other people may be living there. Joint tenants share the whole of the dwelling and are liable for the whole of the rent. None of the joint tenants can exclude any of the other joint tenants except by court order. The same situation applies to joint licensees.

Rights to occupy the home

Where a cohabiting couple are joint tenants/licensees, both partners have legal rights to occupy their home. Their right of occupation arises because they have a contractual or statutory right to occupy from housing law. Because of this, no special rights to occupy are granted to them under the Family Law Act 1996. Their rights will continue for the duration of the tenancy/licence unless they are ended by the tenants'/licensee's own actions, the actions of the landlord, or by a court order (see the page on Resolving occupation disputes and the page on Solutions involving the courts for details). Both partners are jointly and separately liable for the full amount of the rent, regardless of who is occupying the home. Neither partner can exclude the other without a court order.

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