Is stepdad entitled to share ownership?

All Woman

Dear Mrs Macaulay,

I grew up with my mother and stepfather and I am her only child. My mother and my stepfather are not married but they have been together for over 10 years. Some years ago she acquired a residential lot under her name. About a year ago, with the help of the National Housing Trust (NHT), she was able to build a house on the lot using only her contributions. I had to leave the home because I couldn't get along with my stepfather. My mother has recently relocated to the United States and he is currently living in the house. However, in writing, she notified the NHT that I would transact all business relating to the premises, such as making the mortgage payments.

Is there anything written in law that after a period of time my stepfather can gain sole ownership or joint ownership of the property even though he isn't paying the mortgage and his name is not on the title? I do not have a problem with him living there until he dies, but I have heard discussions that he has had with his friends about getting his name on the land.

Let me try and make the legal picture clear for you. Yes, if your stepfather lives on the premises for a continuous period of five years and is cohabiting with your mother, he could have an interest in the property upon a declaration of the court. However, he would have to prove that he was in fact cohabiting with your mother for the said five years, and that they were a single man and a single woman living as if they were man and wife. If your mother has relocated and does not regularly come home to be with him, this would be impossible for him to prove.

If, as you say, you do not mind him being on the premises until his death, then you must ensure that your mother does what is necessary before five years expires with him in the home, so that he does not even have a reason to make an application to the court for a declaration of his interest. She could have an agreement prepared where he agrees that he is permitted to continue to reside at the premises but that he agrees and attests that he has no interest or entitlement in the premises, of which your mother is the sole beneficial and legal proprietor. Or, she can have him move out so that she can deal with it as she pleases, without the possibility of his laying claim to the premises and tying up the matter in court either on the basis that she abandoned her interest therein, or that he has an interest because they cohabited continuously for the statutory period. He could say that they continued to cohabit and reside in the premises which became their home, and her relocation was not because they had separated, but for other reasons.

It is always better for the owner of premises to make the legal situation clear by having legal documents in place. This would make certain your stepfather's position.

It is clear from your mother's actions of acquisition and the construction of the building and her payment of the mortgage through you, that she did not and does not intend that she should share ownership with him. So she should do something about it now. If she leaves time to pass with him living there, without paying any sum for rental — which is one way that she can ensure he does not ever qualify for any ownership interest in it — he could have an action.

If she does not want to go the route of signing an agreement before lawyers representing both parties, or having him execute a deed attesting to the fact that he has no interest or claim of any kind to the premises or any interest in it as it is your mother's sole property, then she can, as I mentioned above, arrange with him, in a note, that he should pay over to you a reasonable sum as rental for his occupation in her absence, so that she can derive some income from it. You should give him a receipt each time he pays and keep your carbon copies safe, just in case. Such payments by him would completely bar him from ever being able to claim that he acquired an interest in the property.

She can have you retain a lawyer to advise her and do what is necessary to secure her full ownership of her property.

Margarette May Macaulay is an attorney-at-law, Supreme Court mediator, notary public, and women's and children's rights advocate. Send questions via e-mail to allwoman@jamaicaobserver.com; or write to All Woman, 40-42 1/2 Beechwood Avenue, Kingston 5. All responses are published. Mrs Macaulay cannot provide personal responses.

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