Your relationship is over, and you want out. But you aren’t sure what you need to organise before you leave. Hopefully this doesn’t sound familiar – but if it does, we recommend you read-on…
In this article we set out our 7 steps to leaving, which we hope will help you through this difficult transition. These steps will also help someone assisting a relative, friend or client through this process.
If you have any questions about an exit strategy or how to respond to your partner walking out, give Marie a call on 1300 654 590. The focus of our family law practice is on families with businesses and investment structures, but Marie is experienced in handling all aspects of family breakdown.
Step 1: Do you really want to leave?
Going through this process is not going to be easy – and it can be hard to turn back. A relationship breakdown can cause a lot of trauma, not only for you but also for your children, family members and friends. Leaving a relationship is stressful, and will usually cause immediate and long-lasting economic, legal and emotional strain.
It may seem obvious to an outsider, but it’s often overlooked by people in the middle of emotional turmoil: Before you leave, you should consider trying to work through your issues with the help of a third party that you both trust.
The goal of the third party should be to keep you focused on the real issues that need resolution, rather than getting distracted by your emotions. We recommend you engage a professional counsellor, but even an ‘impartial’ family member or friend can offer valuable assistance. You shouldn’t make your decision to leave quickly, or when emotions are running high. You want to be able to look back and feel confident you’ve done all you can to make it work.
But if you’ve decided to leave because you’re worried about your safety or the safety of your children, then you shouldn’t hesitate. In these cases, the only option is to leave. You should not delay or question whether it is the right thing to do. We suggest you enlist someone you trust to help you take some essential belongings and find accommodation (even if only temporary).
Step 2: Do you have all your important documents?
Your important documents fall into three categories: legal, financial and personal.
Your legal documents are things like your Will, your passport and your birth certificate. You will need the original of these documents, so it is imperative that you keep them in hand. If you are the primary carer of your children, you should also consider whether it is appropriate to take the birth certificates and passports of your children.
Separation does not change how your Will works, so if you die prior to amending these documents or formalising your legal divorce, your former partner may benefit. Similarly, you may have documents in place which give your partner the ability to take control of your finances or make medical decisions on your behalf. You should review your Will, any General or Enduring Power of Attorney, Appointment of Enduring Guardian or Advance Care Directive, and update these documents as soon as possible to reflect your separation.
Your financial and business documents are things like bank account statements, tax returns, annual accounts, trust accounts, super and SMSF statements and accounts, and pay slips. Having a clear and detailed understanding of the financial position of your relationship (and your business, if you have one) will be vital in your negotiations for maintenance and achieving a fair property settlement.
You need to know what you and your former partner collectively own and owe to properly pursue or defend your entitlements and meet your obligations. Getting financial information can be difficult and expensive after you have left.
It’s quite common for a former partner to refuse to provide documents which explain your collective financial and business position (regardless of their obligations to do so). Once you move away from your partner, it can be harder to get copies of these documents. Ultimately the Family Court will force both sides to make full disclosure, and may also require third parties (like banks and trustees) to disclose information directly to the Court. But if you hope to reach an early settlement without the expense of things like subpoenas, then getting the information before you leave makes sense.
Your personal documents are sentimental and irreplaceable documents, such as photographs, award certificates, cards and letters. You should take your personal documents with you, otherwise you may never see them again – or you may end up paying dearly to get them back.
Step 3: Have you changed your passwords?
Passwords are the modern ‘keys’ to your reputation, information, investments and business. It is vital to change all of your passwords to ensure privacy, security and your ‘digital integrity’.
Important passwords to change include those for your online banking, your email accounts, your social media accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn) and your Apple ID (if you have an iPhone). You should also change your PIN for any ATM cards and for access to any online or mobile applications. Most people have a ‘usual’ password that their partner gets to know over time, so you will probably need to change all of your accounts.
If you have any sensitive information on hard drives or on your laptop, you should consider taking these items with you. Unfortunately, a vengeful former partner can do a lot of damage with your sensitive information, so you need to make the security of your information one of your top priorities.
Step 4: Who’s holding the piggy bank?
If you hold any joint bank accounts (including loan, credit card, super and business accounts) with your former partner and don’t trust how they may behave, you should take steps to limit their access to these funds.
Arrangements can be made directly with the bank to require joint authority for any transactions (or transactions over a threshold value). Alternatively, you may be able to agree how your joint account will be managed (for example, the balance equally divided and the account closed).
If all goes pear-shaped, the bank may freeze the account for all holders, so you should be prepared for this. In the context of running a business, this can be very disruptive, and urgent Court action may be necessary to restore things.
If you don’t already have one, we also recommend you establish your own bank account and start managing and saving your own money. Ideally this is with a different bank to the one you have been using in your relationship. You can arrange to have your pay deposited into this new account. You can also use this account for any separate purchases, especially purchases you need to make before separation.
If you hold a joint credit card or line-of-credit with your partner, and you are concerned they may go on a spending spree or empty the accounts, then freezing these accounts by notifying the bank, should be the first thing on your departure list – or your response list, if it is your partner who has left.
Sometimes it is too late to do this, if a partner has already moved money out of a joint account (or drawn down a credit line) and into a personal account before leaving. Ultimately this will be taken into account in a property settlement. (As an aside, unexplained movements in bank accounts and credit lines can be a sign of impending separation!)
Call us on 1300 654 590 for advice on dealing with joint accounts.
Step 5: Who will pay the bills?
Are you and your former partner jointly responsible for the utility bills, the car finance payments, mortgage or business creditors? If you are moving out of the family home or departing a family business, you will need to contact each creditor and advise that you will no longer be responsible for these expenses. Ideally you do this in writing.
However, if you are the sole or main income earner and your partner is unable to afford these expenses, you may need to continue to pay these. If your partner cuts off financial support, or you do this to your partner, then either party can urgently apply to the Court to request that a reasonable level of ‘spousal maintenance’ be reinstated, i.e. that the main earner meets or contributes to these expenses. We strongly recommend that both parties strive to reach a workable agreement to avoid unnecessary Court costs.
If you would like some advice about your liability to keep meeting expenses, call us on 1300 654 590.
Step 6: What happens to the kids?
Reaching agreement about how your children will be looked after, and how much time you will each get to spend with them, is often one of the hardest aspects of a separation. If kids are involved, we suggest you consider arranging a mediation with a family dispute resolution practitioner as soon as possible. Relationships Australia offers this service. If you are still unable to agree, you will be provided with a certificate confirming this is the case. There are exceptions to the provision of a certificate where there is a risk or there have been incidents of family violence.
If you believe you have reached a workable arrangement about your children, it’s worth documenting the terms, even if only informally. This document can then be provided to a lawyer to prepare a more formal document, such as a Parenting Plan or Consent Orders.
If you would like more information on recording your arrangement, call us on 1300 654 590.
Step 7: Book a meeting with Marie
Knowing where you stand is critical to being able to resolve your family law issues efficiently and fairly. We recommend booking a time to speak with us to find out where you stand, and help you identify potential resolutions.
We will assist you in trying to reach an amicable resolution with your partner, and if this isn’t possible then we can guide you through the Court process.
Having someone who knows what they are doing on your team from day one can make a big difference to the ultimate outcome.
If you would like to speak to someone about how we can help, call Marie on 1300 654 590 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.