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Trusts arising with respect to a passive joint owner: Wodzicki v Wodzicki [2017] EWCA Civ 95

Date:7 MAR 2017
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Rachel Waller, Associate, Fisher Meredith Solicitors

In Wodzicki v Wodzicki [2017] EWCA Civ 95 the trial judge held that the claimant held the legal title of a property on trust with the respondent having a life interest with any other interest to be determined after an accounting process.

The appellant lived in a property purchased in the joint names of her father and his second wife, the respondent. The appellant agreed with her father and the respondent that she should have life interest in the property, and her father had promised to transfer the legal title when a purchase loan had been paid off. However, the respondent had no knowledge of that promise.

The appellant had lived in and maintained the property for many years, without any contribution to the upkeep of the home from either her father or the respondent. Her father visited her at the property occasionally, but the respondent never. When her father died, the respondent sought to grant the appellant ownership of the property for an agreement that the appellant would relinquish any further claim over her father’s estate. On failing to obtain an agreement, the respondent brought possession proceedings relying on survivorship, with the appellant counterclaiming for a beneficial interest by way of constructive trust or proprietary estoppel.

At trial the judge held that there was a common intention constructive trust, with the appellant having a life interest in the home with any additional interest to be determined after an accounting process.

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Given that the accounting process would be likely to find that the appellant owned 100% of the beneficial interest, the appellant requested a stay of the appeal until after the accounting hearing. However, in a move that was criticised by the Appeal Court, the deputy district judge refused to declare the appellant a 100% beneficial owner, although the respondent provided no evidence of contribution.

The Appeal Court was asked to consider whether the trial judge was right to use a resulting trust mechanism to determine each party’s beneficial share and, further or in the alternative, whether the appellant was entitled to sole beneficial ownership by way of proprietary estoppel.

The Court decided that a resulting trust mechanism was appropriate, despite the appellant’s argument that this was contrary to the rulings in Stack v Dowden [2007] UKHL 17 and Jones v Kernott [2011] UKSC 53. The Court highlighted the distinction between the closeness of the parties in both Stack and Kernott, with Richard LJ commenting that ‘there was nothing close about the relationship between’ the parties in this matter, despite their being members of the same family. For this reason, and the fact that the trial judge had made a finding on the evidence as to the actual intention of the parties, it was held that resulting trust principles should apply, even though this was a non-commercial situation.

The Court also rejected the argument that the respondent, as a passive joint owner of the property, was bound by the promise made by her husband, and that this gave rise to a wholly constructive trust and, or in the alternative, to proprietary estoppel. Therefore, the shares of the residual beneficial interest will now be determined as a resulting trust by way of an accounting hearing, as originally anticipated.

Despite not advancing the case beyond the position reached at the original accounting hearing, the judgment offers a useful clarification of the applicability of resulting and constructive trusts in situations where there is a certain distance between the parties who are members of the same family, or in an otherwise non-commercial relationship.

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