Risks in delaying property settlements
Parents, children and or family members who have endured or witnessed a relationship breakdown can certainly attest to the challenges and intimidation separated parties face as a result. Not only are they emotionally challenging, they involve life-changing and confronting decisions, particularly adjusting to the severance of any financial ties and or resolving care arrangements for the children.
It is not uncommon to come across clients who have separated and left finalising their property settlement for many years. Empathetically and understandably so, property negotiation with a former partner is probably the last detail on the minds of separated parties, given the need to also address emotional issues resulting from separation – however it is imperative that you know the considerable risks associated when discussions surrounding a family law property settlement are left for a significant period.
It is important to be aware of the time limits under the Family Law Act 1975 in bringing proceedings for property settlement or spousal maintenance before the Court, which is designed to promote property settlements within a practical time frame.
- For married couples, you have 12 months from the date of divorce;
- For de facto couples, you have two years from the date of separation.
For married couples, we do not recommend applying for divorce until property settlement has been finalised or proceedings commenced seeking property orders. For de facto couples, we commonly run in to the issue of being out of time and we see parties expending legal costs to argue the exact date of separation – therefore reiterating the importance of finalising your property settlement at the first available opportunity following separation.
These time frames exist under the Act to provide certainty to both parties and is beneficial in cases where one party is deliberately skirting the negotiation process (usually the party required to pay maintenance or the party who has smaller future needs) and delaying a property settlement.
In the event you wish to pursue a property or maintenance claim outside the designated time frame, you can only do so with the Court’s permission, that is, leave must be sought from the Court to begin proceedings. The Court must be satisfied that hardship will be caused to you or a child if leave was not granted. In maintenance proceedings, you must demonstrate that at the time the ordinary time limit expired, you were unable to support yourself without an income tested pension, allowance of benefit.
Another significant risk associated in delaying a property settlement is that values of assets, liabilities and or superannuation, as well as the parties’ financial circumstances may change between the date of separation and when negotiations begin and or the matter is brought before the Court –the law looks at and considers the asset pool at the time of any trial, not at the date of separation. This means that any lottery wins or inheritances accumulated may be included as part of the asset pool for division. Similarly, delaying a property settlement whilst meanwhile disposing of any matrimonial assets prior to a settlement can be treated by the Court as that the person has already received part of their property settlement entitlement, thereby reducing their entitlement in the final settlement.
When property settlements are left for a significant period, this also increases the risk that one party may die before proceedings are initiated. Any property owned as joint tenants such as the matrimonial home will be transferred automatically to the surviving tenant (usually the ex-spouse), regardless of what the deceased’s Will states and regardless of whether the parties have separated.
It is for these complexities and risks involved in determining the parties’ entitlements after a long period of separation that we advise you to speak to one of our experienced family lawyers post-separation. Or, if you are in a position where the ordinary time limit has lapsed, we can tailor our advice to you accordingly taking into account your circumstances.
On the same note, if you have managed to reach an agreement with your former partner about a property settlement, we encourage you to document it in a legally binding and recognised manner, either through Consent Orders or a Binding Financial Agreement. The risks you face otherwise is that your partner later decides to change the agreement, which was never formalised in the first place. Putting the terms of settlement in a legally enforceable way would save considerable amount of time and costs in the future if the “informal” agreement was challenged.