The Property (Relationships) Act 1976 deals with how the property of married couples, civil union partners and de facto couples is divided when a relationship ends. The Act covers a relationship ending because of a break-up, but it can also cover a relationship ending because of the death of a spouse or partner.
The purpose of the Act is to recognise the equal contributions of both partners to their relationship and to provide for a just division of property when their relationship ends, taking into account the interests of their children. The general presumption of the Act is that a couple’s property will be divided equally between them. There are exceptions to this rule, however. In particular, there are different rules about how property is to be divided where a relationship has lasted less than three years.
Who’s covered by the Property (Relationships) Act: A summary
Whether the rules in the Property (Relationships) Act 1976 apply to you and your ex-partner depends on the type of relationship it was and how long you were together.
- Couples who’ve been together three years – Married, civil union and de facto couples who’ve been together for at least three years are covered by the equal-sharing rules in the Act. This means the family home, car, and furniture and appliances will usually be shared equally between them.
- Short-term marriages and civil unions – Married and civil union couples who’ve been together less than three years are covered by the Act. But in some cases, the family home, car and so on may be divided according to each person’s contributions to the relationship (including non-financial contributions), rather than being shared equally.
- Short-term de facto relationships usually not covered – De facto couples who’ve been together for less than three years usually aren’t covered by the Act at all. This means that the ordinary rules of property ownership will decide what each person is entitled to. But there are some exceptions to this. And for information about exactly what a “de facto relationship” is under the Property (Relationships) Act, see “What is a “de facto relationship” under the Property (Relationships) Act”.
Making your own agreement
In the first instance, it is up to the couple to decide how they will divide their relationship property. If they can agree on how they will divide the relationship property, then they can do this without having to follow the rules of the Property (Relationships) Act and without having to go to court.
However, any agreement must be in writing and must meet various legal requirements, including that the parties each get independent legal advice (see “Contracting out of the Property (Relationships) Act” below in this section).
Principles of relationship property law
The law relating to the division of relationship property is guided by these general principles:
- Men and women have equal status, and their equality should be maintained and enhanced.
- All forms of contribution to the relationship are treated as equal. This means non-financial contributions, such as caring for children, are valued equally with financial contributions, such as working for a wage.
- A just division of relationship property needs to take into account any economic advantages or disadvantages to a spouse or partner as a result of the relationship or as a result of the ending of the relationship.
- Relationship property issues should be resolved as inexpensively, simply and quickly as is consistent with justice.