Unlike in many other countries, de facto relationships in Australia are protected by law. But what are your rights when the relationship sours and who should you turn to for help?
Increasing numbers of Australians are spending less time within the institution of marriage with around one in ten of us – who are of consenting age – living in de facto relationships.
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the number of Australians living in de facto relationships grew by 25 per cent between 2002 and 2006 to 1.1 million. A trend that appears to be continuing with federal government-funded 2012 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey finding that 51.8 per cent of Australians over 15 were married and 10.4 per cent were living in a de facto relationship.
For the most part those in de facto relationships enjoy many of the same rights as married couples. But the definition of a de facto relationship varies from entity to entity, which can make it difficult when the relationship falls apart.
For Centrelink purposes, couples are considered to be in a de facto relationship from the moment they start living together. But under migration law, you are considered to be in a de facto (sometimes referred to as a social marriage) after 12 months of cohabitating, although the rules vary slightly if you have a child together or de facto relationships are illegal in your country of origin.
Under family law it is defined differently again with the Family Law Act 1975 determining a de facto relationship as a relationship between two adult persons who are not married to one another or related by family and who have been living together (regardless of their sex) for a minimum of two years. Again, the rules may change if you have a child together, have registered your relationship, or have made significant contributions to the relationship.
No matter the circumstances, the end of a relationship can be a stressful and scary time and it is worth seeking expert help to help you navigate this period to ensure you are aware of your legal rights and responsibilities.
Not all state and territories operate in the same way so it is important to understand how the de facto law applies to you. You may also like to consider seeking advice from a divorce lawyer or family lawyer to ensure your rights are protected.
LegalAid, a free legal service that operates across every state, says that in the event a de facto relationship sours and no agreement can be reached between the two parties, either party can apply to the family court to decide matters concerning property division, maintenance, financial agreements and superannuation.
When deciding how your property will be fairly divided the family court will consider such things as what each of you owned before the relationship, the net value of your current assets, contributions made by each person over the course of the relationship, and your future needs including the care of any children, relative earning capacities and financial resources available.
In the event you are not able to afford legal representation when it comes to safeguarding your assets, Legal Aid provides one-off free legal advice to people about a range of legal issues, including the break-down of de facto relationships.
They can also tell you whether you may be eligible for further assistance or a grant of legal aid for a lawyer to represent you in your case.
You may also like to consider getting in touch with The National Association of Community Legal Centres, a group of not-for-profit community organisations that provide legal and related services to the public, focusing on the disadvantaged and people with special needs.