This page is targeted at housing professionals. Our main site is at www.shelter.org.uk

The law on relationship breakdown

This content applies to England & Wales

Overview of the legislation covering relationship breakdown issues.

For married couples and civil partners experiencing a relationship breakdown where one spouse or civil partner is the sole owner, the relevant law is a combination of matrimonial/family law and property law. Most disputes over property are resolved through matrimonial/family law because of the wide discretion available to the court. Property law principles are normally relied on when matrimonial law cannot apply, for example, where there is no divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership or judicial separation, or one party has remarried without any property settlement being made. The different ways in which this legislation works are explained below.

Matrimonial/family law

The statutes governing the action that can be taken by married sole owners and their non-owning spouses in relation to the matrimonial home are the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the Family Law Act 1996. The Children Act 1989 may also be relevant if there are children. The Matrimonial Causes Act gives the courts wide powers to decide who gets what in the long term in financial and property terms. It can make an order for transfer of property from one spouse to another in conjunction with proceedings for divorce, judicial separation or nullity. On 5 December 2005, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force, allowing applicants of the same sex to apply for civil partnerships. On termination of the partnership, the parties will have the same rights to financial relief as married couples on divorce provided for in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

The Family Law Act gives married couples and civil partners the right to apply for an occupation order of the matrimonial home. It also allows the courts to order a transfer of liabilities in respect of a matrimonial home owned by one of the spouses and order a transfer of property from one spouse to another.

Property law

Property law explains the legal position of sole owners and non-owning spouses and civil partners in relation to their interest in the home. Using property law principles, courts can establish what interests are held in the home, but they cannot transfer or redistribute those interests. Of particular relevance to relationship breakdown is the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996. Where family law applies, it can override property law rights.

Back to top