Family Court & De Facto Relationships

Over the last decade an increasing number of Australians are living in de facto
relationships, while marriage rates have fallen. Reflecting this societal change, the law
was changed in 2009 (2002 in Western Australia) so that the same law now applies to
separating de facto couples as applies to separating married couples. That is, any
financial dispute arising from the breakdown of a de facto relationship is decided by the
Family Court and the Family Law Act (the Family Court Act in WA), rather than State law
and the States’ Courts.
What is a de facto relationship?
The basic test is whether the parties, of the same or opposite sex, lived together as a
couple on a genuine domestic basis. In applying that test, the Court will consider factors

  • the length of the relationship
  • how and for how long they lived together
  • any sexual relationship
  • the financial arrangements, particularly whether the parties intermingled their
    finances or if one person financially supported the other
  • any joint purchase of property
  • whether there were children of the relationship and how they were cared for
  • the public reputation of the relationship and the degree of the parties’
    commitment to a shared life
  • any registration of the relationship.
    If a party wishes to apply to the Court for property settlement following a de facto
    relationship breakdown, one or more of the following criteria must also be met:
  • the parties lived together for a total of at least two years
  • there were children of the relationship
  • the applicant made substantial contributions to the other party’s property.
    A de facto relationship can exist even if one or both parties were, at that time, in a
    relationship or living with or married to someone else. Indeed, a mistress may satisfy
    the definition of having been in a de facto relationship with her married partner.
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    Registering a de facto relationship
    Just as the State governments maintain a register of births, deaths and marriages, they
    also maintain a register of de facto relationships. While it is compulsory to register a
    birth, death or marriage, de facto relationship registration is voluntary. The registration
    regimes differ from one State to another, however they are similar. Registration requires
    both partners to complete an application form, provide identification documents, sign a
    Statutory Declaration stating that they are in a relationship with the other person and pay
    the relevant fee.
    Registration should limit or avoid disputes as to whether there was a de facto
    relationship should that relationship end.
    If the relationship does break down, there is a relatively straightforward process by
    which to revoke registration of the relationship.
    De facto property settlement
    The laws that now determine a property settlement between a separating de facto
    couple are the same laws as apply to a separating married couple.
    In general terms, if the Court determines that there should be a property division
    between the parties, the first step is to work out what is in the pool of net assets to be
    divided. That pool includes all the assets and liabilities in each person’s name and in
    the parties’ joint names, as well as each person’s share of an asset owned jointly with
    another person.
    Next, the Court must consider what contributions each partner made and consider their
    respective future needs, in order to work out the percentages of the net assets they will
    each receive. Contributions include financial contributions – i.e. who earnt what, who
    brought what lump sums into the relationship, who bought and paid for what – and nonfinancial contributions – such as being a homemaker and parent, physically renovating a
    home or landscaping a garden, managing the parties’ financial affairs, etc. Future needs
    are things like income, earning capacity, financial resources, ongoing care of children,
    age, health, etc.
    De facto spouse maintenance
    Following the breakdown of a de facto relationship, as is the case following the end of a
    marriage, one party may be entitled to “spouse” maintenance from the other party,
    although usually only for a limited period of time. Such maintenance will only be ordered
  • the applicant cannot support her or himself because of childcare
    responsibilities or if she or he cannot work due to health, age or other
    incapacity, and
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  • the other party has the capacity to pay such maintenance once he or she has
    met his or her financial obligations to any children and his or her own
    reasonable living expenses.
    De facto relationships are an increasingly common part of modern life in Australia.
    There are a range of factors of which the Court must be satisfied to find that someone
    was in a de facto relationship, although it is possible to register your de facto
    relationship to reduce any uncertainty. When such relationships end, the same law
    regarding property settlement and spouse maintenance applies as applies to separating
    married couples. Arrangements for children are also decided in the same way,
    regardless of whether their parents were married, in a de facto relationship or not even
    living together.
    If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please
    contact us on 02 9191 9293 or email