As a family lawyer, I see people going through separation every day. Many people ask me "Is Separation hard to do?" , Separation is becoming more common in our society. But just because it happens every day doesn’t mean that it is easy, either emotionally, physically or legally. Even though most people do not realise it, being married or in a de facto relationship actually bears very serious legal ramifications, and so the process of separation is also a complex legal matter.
Background: the marital relationship
Throughout history, marriage has been considered a legal agreement to bind two people into a relationship. From a legal point of view, it is very similar to a contract. As a part of this legal agreement, many rights and obligations are given to both parties particularly in relation to property. Think of these as the ‘fine print’ or the ‘terms and conditions’ of marriage. Once a couple is married, any assets or debts that they have are considered marital assets and marital debts, regardless of whose name those assets or debts are in. Marriage also creates certain rights in relation to a persons estate after they pass away.
Since 2009, the Family Law Act also covers de facto relationships. This means that there are rights and obligations that mirror that of a married couple if two people are in a relationship and have been living together for more than two years or if they have children together.
It is important to remember that just because marriage and de facto relationships are common does not mean that the law treats them with indifference. The rights and obligations that go along with these relationships create serious and quite complex legal issues.
What kinds of rights and obligations are created in these special relationships?
The main rights and obligations that are created are in relation to legal and financial matters.
When a party to marriage or a de facto relationship buys property or acquires an asset, that property or asset becomes property of the marriage, regardless of whose name it is in.
The same goes for debts, all credit card debts, loans and mortgages taken out by either party become debts of the marriage.
There are also rights and obligations created in terms of information. For example, if my husband is in an accident, I have the right to information about his health and condition, and I also have the obligation to make decisions about this treatment if he is not in a position to do so himself.
Marriage and de facto relationships also create rights of survivorship and impact on a person’s estate after they have passed away.
Separation: exiting a marriage or de facto relationship
The act of separation itself does not end the rights and obligations that have been created. So, when separation does take place, proper steps must be taken to end the rights and obligations that have been invoked by marriage or time (in the case of de facto’s).
The steps that must be taken can vary slightly on a case by case basis, but what all separations have in common is this: you must engage in legal processes to end the rights and obligations that have been created by the relationship. If you do not do this, those rights and obligations will continue into the future (for more information about time limits, please click here).
Just as the rights and obligations created are serious and complex, so is the process to undo those rights and obligations. Although it is possible to enter into an agreement about what you want to do with those rights and obligations, for that agreement to be legally recognised it must be done in a certain way.
Legal processes: ending the rights and obligations
While legal processes can often seem confusing and unnecessary, it is important to follow these processes to make sure that you are protecting yourself in the future. If you do not engage in these legal processes after separating, then you are not ending the rights and obligations that the parties have to one another.
To actively sever the rights and obligations created by your relationship in a way that is legally recognised, you will need to either:
- Enter into an agreement that is drawn up in accordance with the law. This means using forms and processes that are set out under the Family Law Act and Family Law Rules. A mere verbal or written agreement is not enough to be a legally recognised agreement.
- Have an order made by the Court.
It is also incredibly important that you consider doing things like:
- Updating you Will, Power of Attorney, and Enduring Guardianship.
- Applying for a Divorce.
Protecting myself in the future: what do I do now?
To find out more about what you need to do next, contact Coutts Solicitors and Conveyancers to make an appointment on 1300 268 887.
We will be able to provide you with advice about what needs to be taken into consideration in your particular case, and guide you through the processes from there.