Dividing your property when you split up (“Relationship property”)
How the Property (Relationships) Act works
Who’s covered by the Property (Relationships) Act
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, furniture and appliances will usually be shared equally between you.
- 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 (see: “Short-term relationships: When the Act applies” below).
- 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. For more on what “de facto” means, see: “What is a “de facto relationship” under the Property (Relationships) Act” below.
Note: The Property (Relationships) Act applies when a couple separates, or when one of the partners has died. For more information about what happens to your partner’s property if they pass away, see: “Relationship property laws if your partner has died”.
Making your own agreement
As a couple, you can decide how to divide your relationship property if you ever split up. If you can agree on how you will divide the relationship property, you 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 you both get independent legal advice (see: “Can a couple contract out of the Property (Relationships) Act?”).
Principles of relationship property law
The law around dividing relationship property is guided by these general principles:
- both partners 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 fair division of relationship property needs to take into account any economic advantages or disadvantages to a 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.
Polyamorous relationships may be covered by the Property (Relationships) Act 1976
In 2021, the Court of Appeal decided that the Family Court can divide property between people in a polyamorous relationship if they were married, in a civil union, or in a de facto relationship with each person in the polyamorous relationship. This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.
In June 2023, The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal decision that polyamorous relationships can be covered by the Property (Relationships) Act 1976.
What is a “de facto relationship” under the Property (Relationships) Act?
For the purposes of the Property (Relationships) Act, a de facto relationship is a relationship between two people who are both aged over 18 years and are living together as a couple, but are not married to, or in a civil union with, each other.
When deciding whether two people are living together as a couple, a number of factors are taken into account:
- the length of the relationship
- whether you are living together in one house
- whether you have a sexual relationship
- the degree of financial dependence or interdependence
- how property is owned, used and purchased
- the degree of commitment to a shared life
- the care and support of children
- the performance of household duties
- the public image of the relationship.
The court will decide whether there is a de facto relationship in terms of the Property (Relationships) Act and when it based on the facts. The Act will usually only apply to a de facto couple if you have been together for at least three years (see below).
Short-term relationships: When the Act applies
Under the Property (Relationships) Act, a relationship that lasts less than three years is called “a relationship of short duration”. In some circumstances, where the court considers it fair, a longer relationship can also be considered to be “of short duration”.
Marriages and civil unions of short duration are covered by the Act, but special rules apply.
De facto relationships of short duration are usually not covered by the Act unless:
- there is a child of the relationship, or
- one person has made a substantial contribution to the de facto relationship (including non-financial contributions)
In both situations, the court has to be satisfied that not making an order would be very unfair (“result in serious injustice”).
In circumstances where a relationship of short duration is covered by the Property (Relationships) Act, special rules apply to the division of the relationship property (see: “Marriages and civil unions of short duration” and “De facto relationships of short duration”).
What if a couple lived together before their marriage or civil union?
When working out the length of the relationship, any time spent together in a de facto relationship before marriage is counted towards the overall length of the relationship.
Similarly, if a married couple was in a civil union before they got married or the other way round, the length of the relationship for the purposes of the Property (Relationships) Act is the total of both.