Property: The cost of saying goodbye

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Breaking up is hard to do - especially when your home is in one partner's name only. Ginetta Vedrickas examines what you can do to ease the pain of division of property

It happened to Paula and Bob. It happened to Donald and Ivana. And this week it seems to have happened to FW and Mrs De Klerk. The thrill is gone and the love nest is subject to arbitration. While some couples make creative plans to solve their housing problems, others wrangle over ownership of their major financial asset. Who gets the house when love goes limp?

John moved into Anna's home in Battersea, London, inherited from deceased Estonian parents, in 1982. They had a daughter and spent years restoring the house before buying a larger property nearby. "It was in a terrible state. A woman with four sons had lived there and had done nothing to it. They must have all had poor aim as the floors stank of urine and the bath was disgusting," says John, who set to work on what was to be their family home. "I decorated one room at a time, working until midnight and then crashing out. I didn't go out for two years."

John worked continually on the house and Anna, an accountant, began to socialise without him until the inevitable happened - she met Richard. Had restoration caused the rift? "Four years of decorating puts a huge strain on you," says John. By this stage the couple were still together in the house but were rowing fiercely. Things came to a head one day and Anna, John and Richard sat down for a chat about the situation. John says: "Richard was loaded and I don't know where I got the figure from but I said `I'm not going without forty grand'." Richard said: "I'll let you have the money tomorrow," and he did.

John bought a one-bedroom flat round the corner and Richard moved into the "family home". Was John bitter at losing his partner and his home? "In a way I was glad she was finally happy as we hadn't been," muses John, who professes not to have been attached to the house. Perhaps memories overwhelmed Richard and Anna, who moved shortly afterwards. An unmarried joint mortgagee, John is relieved that his financial situation is secure and believes the courts would have been less generous.

Unmarried partners and single sharers have no automatic claim but must prove their contribution to the property. However, the Law Commission is currently preparing a report on disputes between unmarried couples. Draft proposals will, if implemented, give the unwed some of the legal rights protecting married spouses. The commission believes that when a relationship ends, partners may have the right to claim against the other's property.

Guilt and bitterness are often motivating factors behind who gets the house. Property prices can add to the antagonism. Eloise, an advertising executive, recounts a sorry scene at her solicitors after selling a flat in Herne Hill, London, following an acrimonious split. She got nothing because her pounds 25,000 profit was going straight into another property while Charlie, a mature student, received an equivalent cheque for his bank account: "He spat, `Is that it then?' as he got it. I thought it was more than enough as I'd been supporting him for years and he was going off round the world with his share. But I was about to take on an enormous mortgage alone."

Stuart Lockyear, the lawyer for Stephens Innocent, who represented Paula Yates, believes property is a major asset and symbolic of a state of mind: "It keeps people connected to each other for a while longer and shows that feeling is still there whether it be love or hate." Mr Lockyear points out that it is always advisable to settle out of court and avoid legal battles. The Family Law Act will force couples to prove to the judge that they have made proper arrangements for children and assets before a divorce is granted. This may help couples to act sensibly but could delay proceedings.

Maurice's cautionary tale is a warning of how a lengthy battle can have lasting effects - including an unpleasant nickname. Maurice and his girlfriend bought a house in Blackheath, south-east London, of which he, as chief wage earner, was the sole mortgagee. The relationship faltered and Maurice left, married someone else and had children: "I felt guilty but, practically, my girlfriend couldn't afford the mortgage and the house was too big for her. She refused to pay anything, rent part of it out or sell. I was stuck paying two mortgages and supporting two households, which I just couldn't afford."

The house plummeted in value until it was repossessed, leaving the girlfriend with nothing. And Maurice? "I was landed with the entire debt - pounds 125,000, which I can never, ever pay off. When my friends moan about money I tell them they don't know they're born." His nickname? "They call me debt-boy."

Relate: 01788 573241.

Stephens Innocent: 0171 353 2000.