Changes to the Family Law Act

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Extramarital affairs could really cost you, with new laws set to allow former lovers to get money from their ex-partners through the courts.

Changes to the Family Law Act could also threaten the bank balances of polygamous husbands or those with a string of former partners.

These changes, passed in the Senate yesterday, will grant de facto partners, who have been together for two years, the same rights as married couples when seeking spousal maintenance.

But a de facto relationship can be widely interpreted under the act, legal experts say. The act states that such a relationship can exist even if one of the partners is legally married or in another de facto relationship.

Family lawyers warn that a de facto relationship might exist even if the parties do not think it does.

A spokesman for federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said that a payer of spousal maintenance could return to court to show "just cause" for discharging or varying the order.

Improved benefits are available to opposite-sex and same-sex de facto couples under the newly amended law.

Mr McClelland said the act introduced significant reforms to allow opposite-sex and same-sex de facto couples to access the federal Family Law courts on property and spouse maintenance matters relating to relationship breakdown.

"The bill is long overdue," he said. "[It] gives effect to an agreement between Commonwealth states and territories made as far back as 2002."

The changes give more protection to separating de facto couples and simplify the laws governing them.

They will also bring all family law issues faced by families on relationship breakdowns within the federal family law regime.

"The bill is consistent with the Government's policy not to discriminate on the basis of sexuality."

It amends the Family Law Act 1975 and related legislation to create a Commonwealth regime for handling the financial matters of de facto couples on the breakdown of their relationship.

A consistent and uniform approach would alleviate the administrative and financial burden de facto couples now face as a result of multiple regimes applying across the states and territories.

"It is a more effective use of court resources, legal aid and the like."

The bill will allow a court to declare or alter the interests of rights of a party in relation to property. It will also allow de facto couples to split their superannuation interests if their relationship breaks down, a benefit that has been available under the Family Law Act since 2002 for married couples but not de facto couples.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell welcomed the changes.

"These are a welcome improvement in terms of providing access to justice for same-sex couples who face relationship breakdown."

A senior consultant of Canberra law firm Farrar, Gesini & Dunn, Chris Crowley, said before the laws were passed de facto couples often needed two proceedings - one in the Family Court, one in the Supreme Court - which proved "expensive and cumbersome".

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