Do cohabitees have any property rights arising from their relationships? - Justice Centres Uganda
legal advice: cohabitation fallacies

Do cohabitees have any property rights arising from their relationships?


The law does not recognise cohabitation as marriage.

It does not matter how many years a man and a woman have been living together or the number of children that they have. A marriage exists only if they formalize their relationship under any of the recognized types of marriage.

Therefore, matrimonial property rights are basically not applicable here.

The law as far as it pertains to the protection of the rights of cohabitees in regards to property is still not clear.

Court has previously held that cohabitees cannot obtain a remedy under the present matrimonial property laws in Uganda unless they can prove financial contribution or joint ownership of the disputed property as joint tenant or tenants in common[1]. Furthermore, cohabitees can only realise their property rights if they can prove contribution to the acquisition of such property and in that regard the law treats them as a partnership.[2]

Constructive Marriage

However, with the recent court decision in Baryamureba James V Kabakonjo Abwooli and 6 others, while interpreting section 38 A of the Land Act, court gave a broader interpretation to the term “spouse” to be for not only those married under the laws of Uganda but to include also people that have been cohabiting for a longer period to avoid absurdities. Court considered such relationships as constructive marriages.[3] In the instant case, the couples had been cohabiting for more than 35 years.

This means that in some instances cohabiting people have a burden of proof to ascertain their interest in disputed property and such proof may be in form of purchase agreements and receipts while in other instances courts have considered partners as spouses and considered their property to be matrimonial despite no valid marriage.

From the general discussion above based on case law and statutory law, Uganda only recognises five types of marriages and that the decision in Baryamureba James V Kabakonjo Abwooli and 6 others brings in a new notion of a constructive marriage which was not envisaged in our laws. Unless the laws are amended or promulgated to include constructive marriages especially for cohabitees, such marriages are not legally recognised.

Therefore, it is not safe to say that cohabitees have any rights in matrimonial property

since there exists no legally recognised marriage.

Does performance of domestic duties and services of a spouse amount to a contribution to matrimonial property?

Can one bequeath a matrimonial home in a will where there is a surviving spouse?

Can one sell off or use matrimonial property as security for a loan without the other spouse’s consent or knowledge?

You need some assistance?

JCU generally provides free legal services to the vulnerable communities through the following ways.


[1] Mable Senger V Guerra HCDC No.37 of 2010

[2]  Justice Namundi in Musa Kigongo V Olive Kigongo   HHCS No.295 of 2015

[3] Justice Henry Peter Adonyo in Baryamureba James V Kabanyoro Abwooli and 6 other Civil Suit No. 20/2013

Further sources:

  1. Constitution of Uganda, 1995 
  2. Land Act, 1998 Cap 227 (as amended) Laws of Uganda
  3. Marriage Act Chapter 251 Laws of Uganda
  4. Divorce Act Chapter 249 Laws of Uganda
  5. Hindu Marriage and Divorce Act Chapter 250 Laws of Uganda
  6. Marriage and Divorce of the Mohammedans Act Chapter 252 Laws of Uganda
  7. Customary Marriage (Registration) Act Chapter 248 Laws of Uganda
  8. The Registration of Titles Act Chapter 230 Laws of Uganda
  9. JCU Marriage & Divorce folder (can be downloaded)
  10. Case Law pls. see citations