It’s a sad fact of modern life that two-thirds of marriages in Australia will end in divorce. But that statistic does not necessarily deter people from saying ‘I do’ again with a new partner. In 2016, 12 per cent of marriages in Australia were between couples where both people had previously been married, while a further 16 per cent of marriages involved one spouse who was entering into their second marriage.
The implications of multiple marriages for estate and succession planning are significant. Particularly where a person had children from an earlier marriage (or marriages), ideally that person’s will should be written so as to anticipate a claim on the estate from an ex-spouse.
This article looks at what happens when an ex-spouse makes a family provision application (FPA), which is a claim to the court contesting the terms of their ex-partner’s will because they do not feel adequate provision was made for them from the estate.
What happens to a person’s will when they separate from their partner?
In NSW the legal process for dealing with a dispute about a will is covered in the Succession Act 2006 (‘the Act’). Under section 12 of the Act, when a person gets married their existing will is revoked. Similarly, when a person officially divorces, any bequest to their former spouse in the will is also revoked, as is the appointment of the ex-spouse as an executor, guardian or trustee of the will. The only situation in which this is not the case is when the will-maker includes a statement expressly preserving the bequest to the former spouse, regardless of the divorce.
The eligible people who can contest a deceased person’s will through an FPA is limited – usually their spouse and their children – but in NSW, significantly, this class of persons also includes a testator’s former spouse or de facto partner under section 57. Where a person has been married two or more times, the potential for complex, drawn-out and expensive claims on the will becomes apparent.
How is an ex-spouse’s claim assessed by the court?
FPAs are heard by the Supreme Court of NSW. A number of factors are taken into account to determine whether an ex-spouse or spouses should be adequately provided for from the estate. These considerations include:
- the nature and duration of the relationship between the ex-spouse and the deceased (including whether they maintained an ongoing relationship after the marriage ended);
- the obligations and responsibilities owed by the deceased to the ex-spouse;
- the ex-spouse’s financial resources and needs (for example, whether any other person is legally obligated to support the ex-partner);
- whether the deceased and the ex-spouse had any children together (and the children’s age and needs);
- the ex-spouse’s physical, intellectual, or mental capacity;
- the ex-spouse’s contribution to the deceased’s estate, or their welfare;
- any benefit the ex-spouse has received from the deceased’s estate during their lifetime; and/or
- any orders and/or agreements made in family law proceedings.
These factors are considered to determine whether there is any moral claim by the ex-spouse that needs to be provided for.
An ex-spouse’s claim may also be looked on more favourably in the case where the parties failed to come to a property settlement when the relationship ended. In the 2009 NSW case of Scott v Scott, the FPA claimant was entitled to adequate provision from the estate, the court found, because there was no final property settlement when the parties divorced.
By contrast, where a divorcing couple reach a property settlement and then go on to maintain separate financial arrangements in post-married life, the court is less likely to find in favour of an ex-spouse contesting a will based on continuing financial dependence.
In the 2019 case of Stockwell v Beaumont; O’Donnell v Beaumont, an ex-spouse was granted half the estate when she contested the will of her former husband by proving their finances were never fully separated despite the end of the relationship, arguing that she remained financially dependent on the deceased.
Writing a will in blended family situations
In situations where a person has remarried but has children with former partners, the terms of a will are all-important to try and prevent costly court action among family members once the testator has passed.
While a person’s estate will generally be inherited by the testator’s surviving partner and then, when the partner dies, surviving children (including from the earlier marriages), this is not always appropriate for blended families. The children from the earlier relationship/s may not wish to wait until the step-parent dies to inherit from the estate, while the new partner may decide to change their will to benefit others, including favouring only the children from the new relationship. The assets from the estate may also be significantly reduced by the surviving partner, preventing the testator’s children from an inheritance.
Will-makers should consider whether it is better to provide immediate gifts to children from former relationships on the event of their death, or create a testamentary trust, to avoid the possibility of an FPA against the estate. Legal advice should be sought from expert succession lawyers such as Felicio Law Firm.
Time limits and expert advice
An ex-spouse who wishes to make an FPA must do so promptly when their ex-partner passes away – the deadline to file is 12 months after the death.
If you need advice about writing a will to deal with the situation of multiple ex-partners, or need guidance on making an FPA to contest an ex-spouse’s will for provision from the estate, speak with our Erina wills & estates planning lawyers at Felicio Law Firm. We have many years’ experience in helping people makes the right decisions when it comes to their succession plans.