Can you claim against a property if your name isn’t on the deeds?

Gareth Ledsham, Partner in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, trust, will and estate disputes team.
Gareth Ledsham
3 min Read

When people think about property ownership, they often think about the deeds to the property and the names on them. Admittedly people might not think about this very often – it tends to be when a property is being bought, when a person dies – or if there is a dispute.

Disputes in particular (especially if parties are not married), often bring these matters into sharp focus. It is then that we discover that the name(s) on the deeds is only part of the story. This is because of the quirky way in which English law deals with property ownership.

English law in fact provides for two types of ownership.

The first is known as legal ownership. This is the ownership everyone is familiar with. It is the name(s) on the deeds. If you were to look up a property at HM Land Registry, is the person who would be shown as the owner.

The second form of ownership is called beneficial ownership. It relates to the underlying value of the asset.

Another way to look at it is to think of a suitcase full of money. The legal ownership is the suitcase, and the beneficial ownership is the money inside. While the person who owns the suitcase will often own the money inside it as well. Indeed, if there is nothing to suggest otherwise, this is the assumption the law makes.

However, the owner of our suitcase and the money in it are not always one and the same. In this way, it is possible to own a property (or part of it) but not have your name on the deeds.

But if your name isn’t on the deeds (you don’t own the suitcase to continue our analogy) how do you prove your right to the property (or the cash in the suitcase).
In an ideal world there will be a trust document recording who has the legal ownership and who has the beneficial ownership, and also recording if these two things are different. In these situations, the law happily recognises the rights of the beneficial owner.

Often though, such a trust has not been prepared. Or circumstances have changed? What then?

All is not lost (although life does become more complicated).

You can still have your rights in a property recognised but you will need to prove your case. This could be by proving you made financial contributions to a property, or proving that there was an agreement/understanding (a common intention) with the person whose name is on the deeds that you should have a share, and you relied on this to your detriment. Putting this evidence together can be difficult, especially if a lot of time has passed. Documents may not have been kept, memories fade and it may be one word against the other.

So, to come back to our original question, yes, you can claim against a property if your name isn’t on the deeds, but it is far better to agree everything at the outset.
Of course life doesn’t always work out that way.

If you have any questions about rights you may have in a property where your name is not recorded in the deeds, Whatever your wishes, please contact the Gareth Ledsham at Russell-Cooke on 020 8394 6413. 

Briefings Individuals & families Trust, will and estate disputes property ownership legal ownership beneficial ownership creating a trust rights in a property claim against a property if your name isn’t on the deeds