De facto relationships and Will contests

All jurisdictions in Australia have legislation permitting eligible persons to contest an 'unfair' Will if they can show that they have been left without adequate provision by the testator.

In Queensland, an eligible person includes:

  • a spouse of the deceased;
  • a de facto partner (whether same or opposite sex) who had been in a continuous relationship with the deceased for at least 2 years at the time of death;
  • a former spouse who was maintained by the deceased and not remarried, or is the parent of a minor child of the deceased and dependent at the date of death;
  • a child, stepchild or adopted child of the deceased;
  • a parent who was dependent on the deceased or the parent of a surviving child under the age of 18 years of the deceased, or other person under the age of 18 years who was wholly or substantially dependent on the deceased.

If a family provision claim is successful, the Court can order an adjustment to the terms of the Will to satisfy the claim.

When contesting a Will, a de facto partner must first establish the existence of the de facto relationship with the deceased, then show that he or she has been left without adequate provision. Claims are assessed based on a range of factors and the unique circumstances relevant to each case.

What is a de facto relationship?

It is generally expected that testators have a moral duty to provide for the proper maintenance and support of their spouse or de facto partner. A de facto relationship exists where a couple of the same or opposite sex and who are not legally married or related by family, live together in a genuine domestic relationship.

Factors considered in establishing a ‘genuine domestic relationship’ include the length of the relationship, the care and support of children, the nature and extent of a common residence, the existence of a sexual relationship, financial interdependence, property acquisition and ownership, and the public perception of the relationship.

What must an applicant prove in a family provision claim?

An applicant must prove that, at the time of considering the application, he or she has been left without adequate provision for his or her proper maintenance, education and advancement in life. A claim may be made because the applicant was completely left out of the Will or if, in light of the applicant’s financial needs, the inheritance proposed is insufficient to support those needs.

The deceased’s moral obligation to provide for the applicant, the value of the estate and the competing financial needs of other entitled persons are all considerations.

Family provision claims often involve the contested interests between a de facto partner and the deceased’s child or children from a former relationship. Every case is different, however the typical matters that a Court considers in such claims include:

  • the length of the de facto relationship;
  • the respective financial and non-financial contributions of the applicant and the deceased to the estate assets;
  • the personal circumstances of the applicant (such as his or her education, employment, age, health and special needs);
  • the financial position and financial needs of the applicant;
  • the personal circumstances, financial position and financial needs of the deceased’s children or other beneficiaries or applicants;
  • whether there were jointly assets that have already transferred to the applicant after the deceased’s death;
  • whether the applicant received any benefit from the deceased’s life insurance or superannuation payments.

Case study                                                            

Lawrence v Martin [2014] NSWSC 1506 considered a claim by a de facto partner who had been left out of the deceased’s Will. Although their relationship had lasted for 16 years, the deceased had not updated his Will since divorcing his former spouse in 1999. The Will left his entire estate to his (then) spouse, and then to his two sons of that marriage. The effect of the divorce was that the wife was precluded from benefiting under the Will. Consequently, his estate worth around $1.6 million, was left equally to his sons.

On the testator’s death, the applicant received a life insurance benefit of $229,000 and the interest in their jointly-held family home was transferred into her sole name. The home was worth around $1.5 million with a mortgage of $78,000.

The applicant claimed provision of $660,000 from the estate and the Court took account of the following:

  • that the applicant had already received a substantial life insurance benefit and the transfer of the family home into her name;
  • that the applicant had made substantial financial contributions to the family home and assets of the deceased;
  • that the applicant and the deceased were interdependent financially;
  • that the relationship was genuine and long lasting with the applicant making substantial contributions towards the deceased’s welfare;
  • that the applicant, aged 60, would likely cease work over the ensuing years resulting in a substantial reduction in income;
  • although in reasonable health, the applicant suffered some limitations due to neck, back and shoulder issues;
  • the intentions of the deceased which included a desire to leave each of his sons a house;
  • the financial position and needs of each son, one of whom suffered a bipolar condition, making it difficult to sustain long-term employment, as well as other health issues.

In balancing the competing needs between the applicant and the sons and in consideration of all the circumstances, the applicant was awarded $350,000.

This case illustrates the factors unique to each claim that must be considered when balancing the competing needs of the applicant and other beneficiaries.

What if there is no Will?

When a person dies intestate (without leaving a Will), the estate is distributed according to a statutory formula set out in legislation. The distribution is generally to the deceased person’s next of kin and the priority is generally the spouse and children (if any). A ‘spouse’ includes a married or domestic partner. Accordingly, the lack of a Will does not prevent a de facto partner claiming provision from an intestate estate. 

Conclusion

A de facto partner may make a family provision claim if the proposed distribution under a Will or intestate estate does not include adequate provision. Strict time limits apply for bringing such claims, and it is wise to obtain early legal advice.

Most family provision claims can be settled between the legal representatives of the applicant and estate to avoid costly Court proceedings.

To reduce the possibility of a family provision claim it is important to obtain good legal advice when preparing your Will and to ensure that your Will is regularly reviewed.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on (07) 5443 4866 or email kwaddington@gwlaw.com.au.

 

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

       Ken Waddington                                                 Nicole Downs                                                         Madeline Klein           

       Partner                                                                       Solicitor                                                                      Solicitor

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       kwaddington@gwlaw.com.au                       ndowns@gwlaw.com.au                                    mklein@gwlaw.com.au

 

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