In Australia, the law affords some protection to couples that have chosen not to get married, yet lead the life of a married couple, including same-sex relationships. Whether you chose not go get married out of convenience, or for religious reasons, you can take comfort in knowing that should you separate, you are entitled to similar protection under the law as if you were married.
It is worth noting that the rules regarding de facto relationships may vary slightly depending on the state or territory, so this article will focus on the federal law laid out in the Family Law Act of 1975.
A de facto relationship exists when two people are not legally married to each other, not related by family, and regarding the circumstances of their relationship, they carry on as a couple living together on a genuine domestic basis. In determining whether a de facto relationship exists, the court will look at a myriad of factors laid out in the Family Law Act, including:
- the duration of the relationship;
- the nature and extent of their common residence;
- whether a sexual relationship exists;
- the degree of financial dependence or interdependence, and any arrangements for financial support;
- the ownership, use and acquisition of their property;
- the degree of mutual commitment to a shared life;
- whether the relationship is or was registered under a prescribed law of a State or Territory as a prescribed kind of relationship;
- the care and support of children;
- the reputation and public aspects of the relationship.
In order to receive the benefits awarded to de facto relationships under The Family Law Act, the parties must have engaged in a de facto relationship for at least two years (except if there is a child of the relationship or one party made substantial financial contributions).
Recent Changes – Family Law Amendment Act 2008
The Family Law Amendment Act was given Royal Assent in November of 2008 and greatly impacts de facto couples. The amendment brought these relationships under the purview of the federal law and allows them to be treated the same as married couples. The major change brought about by the amendment is that the financial settlement regime was extended to both same sex and heterosexual de facto relationships.
The amendment allows parties to a de facto relationship to seek declaratory relief in relation to their relationship and property, seek maintenance orders, seek property adjustment orders, and the amendment allows de facto couples to enjoy superannuation splitting and financial agreements.
The amendment does not affect de facto couples whose date of separation came prior to March 1, 2009; those relationships are not subject to the laws of the federal system, and are limited to relief awarded under state and territory laws. The date of separation is the sole determining factor as to whether a de facto relationship is governed by state or federal law. Should your de facto relationship have ended prior to this 2009 date, there is one way you may still have access to the federal law. If you and your partner make an unconditional choice to opt in to the federal legislation, and you satisfy the following elements, your separation can fall under the purview of the federal law.
- There must be no current order about property or maintenance.
- There must be no agreement between the parties enforceable under the state law in existence.
- The parties must consent in writing.
- The parties must have received independent legal advice as to the advantages and disadvantages of making the choice.
- The parties must have received a signed statement confirming the advice from their lawyer.
Generally, this exception is no longer applicable because The Family Law Act has placed a two-year limitation on the institution of matrimonial causes. So, had your de facto relationship ended before March 1, 2009, but no legal action was filed within two years then you would not be eligible for any relief.
Each of the following subsections highlights the relief available to de facto couples thanks to this 2008 amendment.
De Facto Relationships and Property Settlement
The Family Law Act makes little difference between property settlement amongst formerly married couples, and those who were in a de facto relationship. For all intents and purposes, the courts are to treat property settlement issues for married and de facto couples the same, and the language under the Family Law Act is nearly identical.
For an in depth analysis regarding property division, please see the articles in our property settlement centre. With regard to property settlement issues, just know that there is no real distinction between the way the law treats married couples and those who were in de facto relationships. The way that creditors, bankruptcy trustees, and property orders are treated is practically identical.
De Facto Relationships and Maintenance
Similar to property settlement issues, the way in which de facto relationships are treated with regard to maintenance is identical to the way in which married couples are treated. There are provisions in the Family Law Act that discuss the right to maintenance, power to order maintenance, factors to look at, urgent maintenance, and modification of orders that are almost verbatim for both married and de facto couples. You can find an analysis of all of the rules regarding maintenance in our maintenance center.
De Facto Relationships and Financial Agreements
As you may have guessed, the provisions of the Family Law Act that discuss financial arrangements for married couples is largely the same as the provisions that apply to de facto couples. Parties to a de facto relationship are permitted to enter into financial agreements; the only major distinction being that the agreement will be no longer be binding if a de facto couple later marries. Again, for a more detailed look at the law surrounding financial agreements, please see our property center.
De Facto Relationships and Superannuation
Superannuation splitting is available to de facto couples to the same extent that it is available to married couples. The only noteworthy distinction is that there are more complex provisions regarding the separation declaration for de facto couples than there are for married couples.
As you can see, thanks to the 2008 amendment, if you are involved in a legally recognised de facto relationship, and you subsequently separate, you are entitled to nearly the same relief you would be entitled to had you and your partner married.