Do adult children living at home have rights over the matrimonial house in a divorce?

Rebecca Massam Family Law Solicitor

Recent research by Loughborough University shows a sharp rise in the so-called ‘boomerang’ generation of young adults returning to live at home until their late twenties or early thirties.  This trend has continued as a result of the pandemic causing job losses, furlough, and university closures. 

‘With the shape of family life-changing, we are seeing an increase in queries about whether adult children living at home have any impact upon a divorce,’ says Rebecca Massam, a Partner in the family law team. ‘The law makes a number of provisions to ensure that minor children continue to be cared and provided for following divorce, but not typically once they attain the age of 18. 

This can be a worrying and stressful time for all involved, especially if the family home needs to be sold.  The child may be worried about not being able to rehouse themselves: they may need a space in their parents’ new home; or ongoing financial support from parents to be able to live independently.

The rights of an adult child are extremely limited.  Generally, the law does not impose an ongoing obligation on parents to maintain their child after the age of 18, nor does it require parents to continue to provide a home for them after this time.

There are two main pieces of legislation governing an adult’s right to claim from their parents, and they can only be used in very limited circumstances. These are the Matrimonial Causes Act and the Children Act. 

Neither of these permits a child to obtain a legal interest in the family home on divorce but, under certain circumstances, they can assist an adult child obtaining ongoing maintenance from a parent, which could be used outwards meeting their housing needs.

Matrimonial Causes Act

Under the Matrimonial Causes Act, an application can be made if:

  • The child’s parents were married;
  • The child is over the age of 16;
  • Maintenance was already paid for their benefit when they were a minor;
  • An application is made by the adult child (not a parent on their behalf) prior to their 18th birthday; and
  • That child is still in education or undergoing training for a trade or profession.

The court will look at all the circumstances of the case, including the financial position of both parents and their ability meet their own financial needs.

The court also has power under this Act to grant maintenance in special circumstances, typically where an adult child is living with a disability and there is an ongoing dependency or requirement for expensive medical equipment, treatments, and employment of specialist support.   

Children Act

The Children Act provides a potential alternative route in the following circumstacnes:

  • The parents have not been married;
  • There has been no maintenance order in place while the child was under 16.
  • An application needs to be made before the child reaches the age of 18, and payments can be backdated to the time that the application was made; and
  • The child in further education or training for a profession or vocation, or, if there are special circumstances to justify making an order.  What constitutes special circumstances will be the same as in the Matrimonial Causes Act. 

Again, this order can be for periodic payments or a lump sum.  Unlike for minor children, it does not provide rights or interests for the adult child in the family home. 

What are the considerations?

The considerations for both the Acts are very similar.  If you are entitled to apply, then the court will assess the following:

  • the income and earning capacity of each parent;
  • the financial needs and obligations of each parent;
  • the child’s financial needs and their own ability to generate an income now and in the future;
  • any physical or mental disability of the child; and
  • any education or training they intend to undertake.

This will necessitate full disclosure by both parents and the adult child of any assets they hold and their incomes.  The court is not limited in the amount it can award, which will be proportionate to the needs of the child.

Can an adult child ever claim an interest in the family home?

It is possible for an adult child to claim a right over the family home.  This is a civil action, rather than one brought under Family Law legislation,  in which the adult child claims that, although they are not a legal owner of a property, they have what is known as a beneficial interest in it because of particular actions they have taken or assurances they were given.

This type of situation can arise in a number of ways but it can often be an issue for farming families.  A child may have given up the opportunity of gainful employment to work for a low wage on the farm after an assurance that the farm would be theirs one day.  They may have made several sacrifices and even investments in the farm business on the basis of promises made to them.  If that case arose, then the parents making those promises may be found unable to deny that an interest in favour of their child exists.  Similar circumstances could also arise in other family-run businesses which are tied to the home, such as a hotel or garden centre.

An adult child may also be able to bring a claim if they have invested financially in the house on the assurance they would share part of the equity.  They may have extensively renovated the house, built an extension or annex, or modernised electrics and heating at substantial cost.

These cases are usually brought under the Trusts Of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996, and can often be costly and difficult to quantify.  It is important that early advice is sought in order to avoid a lengthy legal dispute.

In conclusion

While adult children may have few rights for financial maintenance from their parents, it is no doubt a stressful time for all the family when parents go through a divorce.  Adult children may even be burdened with more of their parent’s worries and feelings as they are not shielded in the same way as minor children. 

If an adult child has invested in your family home, then recognising this at an early stage can save significantly in legal costs.  It is important to open dialogue early and ensure that adult children are aware of any potential house sale in order that they can make their own arrangements in good time.  If your child is looking to invest in the family home, then it would be prudent for everyone if a declaration of trust is drawn up to reflect how the property is going to be held. This could save potential conflict in the future.

For further information on any aspect of relationship breakdown or divorce, please contact the family law team on  01732 747900 or email [email protected]. Warners has offices in Sevenoaks and Tonbridge in Kent.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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