Loving parents often allow their adult children to remain living in the family home for as long as they wish, in the expectation that they will, in due course, fly the nest. In a case that will ring a bell with thousands of families, the High Court considered the legal consequences of such commonplace arrangements.
An elderly widow wished to sell her home and downsize. Her middle-aged son and daughter-in-law had, for many years, also occupied part of the house and had no desire to leave. The widow, who was the property's sole legal owner, ultimately sought a possession order against them.
Following a hearing, a judge noted that the widow and her late husband had in the past assured their son that he could stay on in the property for as long as he wanted. When the couple began to make plans to buy a home of their own, the father had asked them why they needed to take on a mortgage when the property already provided them with all that they needed.
The judge found that the couple had acted to their detriment and repositioned their lives in reliance on the parents' assurances, and that requiring them to quit their home without compensation would be unconscionable. He ruled that they were entitled to a 27.5 per cent equitable stake in the property and granted them an opportunity to buy out the widow's majority share.
In upholding the widow's challenge to that outcome, the Court noted that the parents expected that their son would, at some point, fly the nest. They gave him no absolute assurance that he was entitled to remain living in the property until their deaths. The assurance was contingent, in that it was understood that things might happen in the future which meant that he would no longer be living there. There was also no assurance that the son and his brother would inherit the property.
The Court acknowledged that the couple paid towards domestic bills and carried out substantial works of improvement, decoration and repair to the property. They had, however, lived there for many years rent free. Overall, the Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence that they had relied on the parents' limited assurances to their detriment. It was thus not unconscionable for the widow to seek possession of the property, on six months' notice, without paying the couple compensation.