If you’ve recently separated from your partner, you’re probably wondering what to do about things like the family home, cars, bank accounts, debts and even items such as furniture and cutlery. It can be difficult to know where to start. Seeking legal advice from a family lawyer early on can ensure that you approach the task with the best information possible. However you go about sorting out property following a separation, inevitably each person will have less than they did as a couple. The aim of a property settlement is to finalise the financial relationship between two people. Even where a couple has more debts than assets, they’ll still need to sort out how these will be distributed. There are no particular rules or laws that apply to how you must divide your property after separation. Whatever approach you take, it’s important not to get stuck on the idea of a percentage entitlement. It’s usually more useful to think of the practical effect of your property settlement. Will each of you be able to afford to live somewhere else? Is there a way of keeping the kids in the family home? Keeping perspective can also save you time and money. You’re unlikely to be happy in the end if you end up spending one to two years and some considerable amount of extra dollars just to chase down a similar amount of some extra dollars in your settlement. You don’t have to wait until your divorce comes through before commencing your property settlement. In fact, the longer you wait the more complicated the financial issues may become. There are also strict time limits that apply if you want to finalise your property agreement through the family court. You should get advice as soon as possible to make sure you don’t miss any deadlines. Even if you want to sort out your property issues with your former partner without outside assistance, it is still best for each of you to get good legal advice from a lawyer experienced in property matters. A lawyer can also give you advice about how to access your belongings or other property in the meantime, if you are having trouble doing so. If you are concerned about the cost, call around and ask a few different lawyers about how and when they will charge you. Getting good advice requires you to provide good information. You will need to do some legwork. You’ll need to understand your family finances even if you haven’t taken an active interest in the past. But where do you start? A good starting point will be to gather information and documents such as Property appraisals from real estate agents, bank statements, loan contracts, superannuation statements, trust deeds, tax returns and payslips share certificates and information about any businesses you or your former partner owns You should also collect information regarding your current household expenses such as food and electricity, medical costs and school expenses for children. Organise everything into a logical order. The more you do and the better you organise your information and documents for your lawyer, the less it will cost you in legal fees. If you’re unable to access all these things, don’t panic. Family law requires that each person provides all relevant information to the other when sorting out a property settlement. So take along everything that you can and your lawyer can give you information about how to seek any other important documents from your former partner. So what happens if you are not able to work out a settlement with your former partner? Most people are able to come to an agreement without asking the court to make any decisions for them. But this won’t be possible or appropriate for everyone. For example where one person is refusing to provide important information. You should discuss with a lawyer any concerns you may have and how best to approach your property settlement. There are no “one size fits all” solutions in family law. If you do ask the court to decide your property issues for you, there is no guarantee of a particular outcome. This means a lawyer will not be able to tell you exactly what a judge or magistrate will decide in your circumstances. The best a lawyer can do is to provide you an estimate of a range of possible outcomes. There is a 4 step process, used by the family court for making decisions about property. The four steps are: one, identify and value all the property and debts. Two, examine the contributions of both parties. Three, look at the current and likely factors affecting each of the parties. Four, consider whether the proposed outcome is just and equitable. The law does not take into account who left the relationship or who the people involved blame for the relationship breakdown. The first step is to identify and value each item of property and any debts. Anything in either of the parties’ names or in joint names will need to be identified, regardless of how or when it was acquired. Step two involves the consideration of the contributions of each person. The court takes into account all kinds of contributions, including things such as wages,lottery winnings and gifts as well as maintaining or improving the home, performing household tasks and caring for children. Contributions may have been made before, during, or after the relationship. The third step considers the current circumstances of each party and the current and likely factors affecting each of them. For example, how old is each person and does either person have any particular ongoing health needs? How much is each able or likely to earn in the future? What responsibilities does each person have for the care and financial support of children or any other person. Once the assets and liabilities have been identified, contributions assessed and the current and likely factors affecting each of the parties taken into account, the court can come up with what it thinks should happen with the property. So what’s step 4 all about then? At this final step, the court needs to consider whether this proposed division of property is just and equitable in the circumstances. It will “step back” and take a look at the impact on each person in real life. So that’s a broad outline of how the family court deals with property matters. But while this can be a good reference you don’t need to follow the same process. You may refer to it as a helpful guide, as the process has been developed to try and come up with a fair division of property. And remember, always get independent legal advice before you sign any written agreement.