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Separation Checklist - Practical Steps You Can Take After Separation

First published December 14th, 2022

Separation is a highly emotional and stressful time that is difficult to navigate on your own. Whether you are in a married or de facto relationship that has broken down, knowing what steps you can and should take can make the process of separation less daunting and overwhelming.

The team at Sage Family Lawyers have put together a comprehensive separation checklist to give you the best chance of protecting yourself and your children (even in amicable separations).

By working through our checklist called the ‘Separation Checklist’ you will understand what you need to organise and who you can speak with to make this transition smoother.

While this is not an exhaustive list and everyone’s personal circumstances will be different, we hope it helps you to make a start on some practical and important tasks.

Step 1: Seek Legal Advice

It can be difficult to remain sensible and rational during a highly emotional and mentally straining time. However, the decisions and actions you take in the period straight after separation can have long-term consequences relating to parenting arrangements and property settlement.

Having an experienced family lawyer at your side in those early stages will help you to take the right steps to ensure a smoother separation process and save you fewer headaches and costs down the line.

A family lawyer will look at the bigger picture to understand both your current needs and what your future needs may be. They will help you to understand the likely outcome of taking a particular course of action and what you are legally entitled to in relation to property and parenting matters.

Step 2: Arrangements for Children

If you have children, discussing parenting arrangements is one of the most important steps in the separation checklist. The vast majority of parents will be able to agree on parenting arrangements without needing to go to Court.

Making long-term parenting arrangements is difficult when you have just separated. Try to organise temporary arrangements and then later down the track, when things have settled, you can work on more permanent agreements like parenting plans or consent orders.

Your arrangements should consider details such as:

  • Where the children will live and who will take care of them
  • How much time children will spend with each parent
  • Visitation arrangements including grandparents and other extended family
  • Where children will go to school
  • School fees and other further education expenses for the children
  • Who will hold onto the children’s important documents, e.g. birth certificates and passports.

Make sure you get any temporary agreements in writing rather than face-to-face or over the phone.

When making arrangements try to keep the best interests of the child in mind. It’s likely in their best interest to stay in the matrimonial home to reduce disruption and keep them in a familiar environment amongst all the changes.

If you and the other parent cannot come to any agreement, seek the assistance of a family dispute resolution (FDR) practitioner or a private mediator. Our family lawyers can conduct mediation sessions, complete the Family Dispute Resolution process, and represent you in the Family Courts, as required.

Contact Services Australia to find out about Child Support. For calculating child support you should be paying or receiving, a basic calculator is available on the Services Australia website for parties to gain an estimate on how much child support they should pay.

Step 3: Establish and Record Your Date of Separation

Make a note of your separation date. This can be over text or email, as long as it’s in writing. Your date of separation is when you finally decided the relationship was over and communicated this to your partner, even if it wasn’t reciprocated by them.

The date of separation is very important in the family law context. In order to be eligible to make a Divorce Application, parties must be separated for a period of at least 12 months. The date of separation is used to establish the start date of this required separation period.

For de facto relationships the date of separation is important as it determines the start date of the property settlement time limit. De facto couples have a period of 2 years from the date of separation to bring an application for a property settlement.

Step 4: Decide on Living Arrangements

It can be difficult to decide who gets to stay in the house during separation. Try to have an open discussion about who will be moving out, who will be staying, and what is financially possible.
You will likely need to make a plan together about covering mortgage repayments, rates, and rent if one party has moved into a rental property.

If you remain in the family home, consider changing the locks to avoid your ex-spouse removing items without your consent while you are away.

You may both choose to remain in the home due to financial constraints or other reasons. This is called ‘Separation Under One Roof‘. You can still qualify for a divorce in Australia despite living together under one roof if you can provide evidence of separation.

Step 5: Gather Personal Belongings

If you are moving out, try to gather family heirlooms, items with sentimental value, and personal belongings as it may be difficult to get these after you’ve moved out. If possible, seek agreement on the items you are taking as this will avoid any setbacks in future property negotiations.

If you have left your belongings behind and your former partner does not give you access to them, it’s important to seek legal advice to understand your rights.

Step 6: Change Passwords

You should change your login details on:

  • Email
  • Phone pin
  • Computer & tablets
  • Separate bank accounts
  • Credit card & debit card pin (not joint accounts)
  • Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
  • Apple I.D/other cloud storage
  • Online accounts such as eBay, Afterpay, Zippay etc
  • MyGov & other government account passwords
  • Utility passwords
  • Ridesharing or food delivery apps

It’s important to protect important and personal information from your former partner even in amicable separations. Lawyers will use email to communicate confidential information to you so it’s important your ex-partner does not have access. If you share an email, create your own separate email account.

Step 7: Update Your Postal Address

You need to have private access to the mail you receive, especially any confidential information from your lawyer. If you are moving out, ensure you update your postal address. If you are both staying within the matrimonial home, consider having your post redirected to a trusted family member’s or friend’s address, to your workplace, or open a PO BOX.

Step 8: Open a Separate Bank Account (If You Don’t Have One Already)

Redirect your post-separation income to the new account including wages/salary and any Centrelink payments.

Your own bank account can give you financial independence and give you some control during your separation.

Step 9: Review Joint Finances

If the separation is amicable aim to cooperate with your former partner to cancel any joint credit cards, close down the joint bank account, and redistribute the savings into each other’s personal accounts.

You will need to make sure the account is not overdrawn before you can close it. The same goes for paying off any outstanding credit card debt for cancelling. Check for any direct debits you may have set up and make a plan for these if the account is closing.

However, there may be accounts you cannot close such as mortgage and offset accounts. It may be best to decide what contributions will be made by each party to the joint account to cover outgoings like mortgage repayments.

To avoid either party withdrawing money without consent, you can contact your bank and set up a cosigning system to withdraw money.

You should also look at cancelling any redraw facilities on your home loan.

Step 10: Gather Important Documents (Either original or copies)

Gather and make copies of important documents such as:

  • Marriage certificate (if applicable)
  • Proof of separation date
  • Birth certificates
  • Passports
  • Bank statements for all accounts both joint & separate
  • Credit card statements
  • Superannuation member statements
  • Share statements
  • Cryptocurrency statements
  • Payslips (both yours & your ex-partner’s)
  • Proof of opening joint bank accounts
  • Proof of opening joint credit cards
  • Insurance policies
  • Tax returns (both parties’ personal tax returns)
  • Property documents (lease, deeds, mortgage agreements)
  • Will & estate related documents
  • Utility bills
  • Vehicle registration (cars, boats, motorbikes)
  • Government benefit documents
  • Receipts of valuation of any significant assets

If either you or your former spouse owns a business, gather financial documents such as:

  • Business tax returns & BAS statements
  • Financial statements
  • Trust deeds
  • Business bank account statements
  • General ledger accounts & reconciliations

Some spouses may attempt to hide assets to create a financial settlement that favours them. Having all this documentation will make it hard for your former spouse to do this. Keep these documents in a secure place.

Step 11: Keep a Diary

Write down everything that happens during your separation and the date it occurred as these could affect divorce or separation proceedings. This could include:

  • Discussions between you and your former partner
  • Details on any interactions
  • Arrangements you have agreed to
  • Time spent with children
  • Removal of furniture
  • Selling of shared assets
  • Moving money between accounts

Get in the habit of writing a page per day, even if it’s just to write that nothing happened that day as this could be used as evidence.

If something did happen, try to describe the events as accurately as possible and note any details such as the time, location and witnesses.

Step 12: Inform People and Relevant Organisations

There is no doubt that going through separation will mean changes, so it’s important to notify important groups and people including:

  • The school
  • Bank
  • Family & friends
  • Centrelink (if applicable)
  • Medicare
  • Child Support Agency
  • Australian Tax Office
  • Work
  • Shared accountants & financial advisors

Step 13: Update Your Insurance Policies and Registrations

Below are some possible insurance policies you may need to update:

  • House insurance
  • Contents insurance
  • Motor vehicle insurance
  • Private health insurance
  • Pet insurance

It’s important to transfer these into the name of the person who will be taking care of the expense. Without making these updates, your former spouse could make claims against your insurance policies or worse cancel them without your consent.

If you share jointly held policies such as private health insurance, consider taking out new ones in your name only.

Consider any assets in your sole name that your partner is in possession of, i.e. car. You will still be liable if this property is damaged so ensure registrations are kept up to date.

Step 14: Update Utility Accounts

  • Phone
  • Internet
  • Electricity
  • Gas

If you have moved out of the property, remove your name from the utility accounts or transfer to your name if your spouse has moved out. Be sure to inform your partner about the steps you are taking.

Step 15: Update Lease Agreements

If you are moving out or if your partner is, let your landlord or property manager know so that the lease can be updated. You will still be liable for any fees or damages if your name is on the rental agreements.

If practical, discuss with your former partner who will receive the bond and how it should be divided at the end of the lease.

Step 16: Review and Update Your Beneficiaries or Authorities

  • Will
    It’s important to update your will, as your former partner may still be your primary beneficiary and you may want to change this if you are separating.
  • Life Insurance Policy & Superannuation Funds
    If you have life insurance, you may also want to change this if your ex-spouse is still the primary beneficiary.
  • Power of Attorney/Enduring Guardian.
    You may have your partner as your Power of Attorney or Enduring Power of Attorney. It’s best to see an estate planning lawyer before actioning this.

Step 17: Review and Update Automatic Payments

Review automatic payments such as:

  • Netflix, Stan, Disney etc.
  • Gym subscriptions
  • Meal subscription services

Determine whose name these accounts are in and who intends to keep using them. If your ex-partner is now covering these, remove your details and arrange for them to take over or simply cancel them if nobody plans to continue using them.

Step 18: Create a Detailed List of All Assets and Liabilities

Create a running list of all assets and liabilities, both individual and joint, regardless of whose name they are registered in. This includes any assets or liabilities you acquire or receive after separation as they will be taken into account in property settlement negotiations. Some examples include:

  • Savings
  • Properties (including commercial properties)
  • Businesses
  • Family companies
  • Trusts
  • Investments
  • Vehicles
  • Personal belongings
  • Superannuation
  • Shares
  • Artwork
  • Household contents
  • Credit card debts
  • Mortgages
  • Personal loans

How assets and liabilities are to be divided does not need to be done immediately after separation but there are property settlement time limits to be aware of.

In the meantime, discuss with your former partner how payments like mortgage repayments, bills, and loan repayments are going to be managed until you have reached a final agreement as to whose name the property and the mortgage will be transferred to or whether it will be sold.

You can start to discuss and negotiate a fair settlement but it’s best to get legal advice before entering into any agreements. A property settlement lawyer will ensure you receive what you are entitled to in your separation.

Step 19: Create a Record and Supporting Evidence of Financial & Non-financial Contributions to the Relationship

This information will be important when it comes to negotiating a property settlement and claims for spousal maintenance.

Financial Contributions:

  • Paying household bills
  • Contributions to super
  • Repayments on loans
  • Food shopping expenses & other items

Non-Financial Contributions:

  • Taking care of children
  • Improving the value of assets such as the matrimonial home via repairs and maintenance
  • Cooking meals

Step 20: Work Out A New Budget

Following separation, there are bound to be changes to your work and finances, so it’s important to create a new budget so that you can live within your means.

A monthly budget could include your salary, any spousal maintenance payments, child support payments, and a list of projected expenses including debts.

Step 21: Seek Assistance & Reach Out For Support

Separation is not something you need to go through alone. You can seek out counselling services, whether that be couples counselling to reconcile or individual counselling, to help you through even if it’s an amicable separation.

There are also community groups and organisations offering positive support services to help you.

If you or your child are feeling unsafe and are experiencing domestic violence you can call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 737) at any time for support. If you are in danger or require a protection order, then you should call 000.

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Casey established Sage Family Lawyers after working for one of Australia’s most prestigious family law practices.