(Victorian & Australian Law. Click here for Top Family Lawyers in Australia)
In recent times, the jurisdiction of property disputes in Family Law has broadened. Traditionally, property was only divisible between married or divorced couples. De-facto and same sex partners are now able to apply for a property settlement, though under different law. In the absence of agreement between the parties, an application for the settlement of a property dispute is made to the court, to be decided on the basis of need.
The settlement reached becomes legally binding and enforceable by the courts. Here’s a rough guide to what usually happens in these situations…
Parties can make a property settlement by agreement or, if agreement cannot be reached, make an application to the court for a property settlement. Applications for the division of property after divorce can be made to the Family Court or to the Federal Magistrates Court where a property dispute is worth less than $700,000.
Only parties who are or were married can make an application for a property settlement under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). In the case of divorce, an application must be made within 12 months of receiving the decree absolute. De-facto and same sex partners can make an application under the Property Law Act 1958 (Vic) in the Supreme Court, County Court or Magistrates’ Court.
Once an application is made, the parties will be asked to attend a case conference, with the aim of settling the property dispute by agreement before it goes to court. Present at this conference will be the parties, any family lawyer involved and a court registrar. If this conference is unsuccessful, the parties will go to court.
Property disputes in de-facto and same sex relationships (domestic relationships) are dealt with under the Property Law Act 1958 (Vic). A domestic relationship is a relationship between two people (regardless of gender) who live together as a couple on a domestic basis but are not married. The domestic relationship must have existed for at least two years for an application for a property dispute to be made under Part 9 of the Property Law Act . If there are exceptional circumstances, for example children being born out of the relationship, this two-year period can be waived. The relationship must have ended after 8 November 2001 for Part 9 to apply.
The type of property divisible in a property settlement includes assets, cash, real estate, investments, insurance policies and superannuation. Debts are also taken into account. In a domestic relationship, as governed by the Property Law Act , superannuation and retirement benefits are not included in a property settlement. In making an order for property settlement, the court calculates the total pool of assets of the parties.
The division of these assets is based on both contributions made by each of the parties to the asset pool and future needs. The contributions of the parties include non-financial contributions, which means a homemaker will not be disadvantaged in this assessment. Future needs takes into account who is responsible for the daily care of the children, earning capacity, age, health and the financial circumstances of any new relationship. The aim is to distribute the property fairly between the two parties.
If you believe your partner is going to dispose of assets before the total pool of assets is calculated you can obtain an injunction to stop the sale taking place. Bank accounts and proceeds from the sale of any assets that has already taken place can also be frozen.
A party can apply for ongoing spousal maintenance if they can prove they are unable to support themselves. This application must be made within 12 months of divorce. An application for spousal maintenance is often included with an application for property settlement so that all financial issues are dealt with at once.
Spousal maintenance cannot be applied for where a domestic relationship exists.
If an agreement is reached between the parties, they can apply to the court for consent orders. This will make the agreement enforceable by the courts in case of dispute. Consent orders, once made, are final. A party must prove fraud, impracticality or other exceptional circumstances if they wish the consent orders to be set aside or varied.
If a party is not complying with the orders made, an application can be made to the court for enforcement. In this application, the party applying must set out exactly what the problem is. The court will then decide whether an order is needed to enforce the existing order.
A family law property settlement is an important process to go through after the breakdown of a marriage or domestic relationship. A property dispute can be settled by agreement between the parties or resolved by the court. Each case is unique and will be considered by the court according to its own circumstances. The court will not consider who is at fault in the breakdown of a relationship. Rather, it will be resolved on the basis of fairness and need.