31 May 2024

Breakups are tough, but preparation is key to a smooth separation

| Katrina Condie
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Parker Coles Curtis director Catherine Coles

Parker Coles Curtis director Catherine Coles says it is important for both parties to understand their rights and obligations when preparing for a separation. Photo: Parker Coles Curtis.

A relationship breakdown is tough, but there are steps you can take to ensure a separation runs as smoothly as possible.

Parker Coles Curtis founding director Catherine Coles said it is important for both parties to understand the legal aspects of a breakup, including child custody, property rights and financial responsibilities so they can make informed decisions that will work best for their situation.

“Separation is such a difficult time and a lot of people have no idea of where to go and what they should consider,” Ms Coles said.

“A good starting point is for both individuals to sit down with their own lawyers so they can arm themselves with all the information they need and, if there is domestic violence and children involved, how to ensure a safe exit.

“It is important for both parties to understand their rights and obligations when preparing for a separation.”

Ms Coles said gathering financial documents, such as bank statements, tax returns, superannuation statements and insurance policies provide lawyers with a clear picture of a couple’s financial situation.

“Sometimes people don’t know where to look because they haven’t had control of the family finances. A lawyer can help search for that information.

“In a separation, everyone is required to provide full and frank disclosure so there is complete transparency about what is available from the marriage or relationship.”

Once the financial situation has been established, Ms Coles said each person would need to create a realistic post-separation budget to ensure financial stability.

“Part of our role as lawyers is connecting clients with other professionals who can provide financial advice when it comes to budgeting or superannuation. This can be really complex,” she explained.

READ ALSO Are finances holding you back from separating?

Planning for the needs of children, including living arrangements, schooling and emotional support is an obvious first step, but Ms Coles said this isn’t an easy task.

“It’s really important to prioritise children’s well-being in a family separation,” she said.

“It seems so obvious that everyone wants to provide emotional support for their kids, but knowing how to go about that often trips people up.

“The first thing is to avoid having any conversations or arguments about the separation around the kids. Both parents need to ensure that children are well supported emotionally and on the same page regarding their values.

“Often there’s an assumption about what the kids need, but an expert can help create a framework that’s in the best interest of the children.

“Lawyers can help arrange family therapy, social workers, counselling for the children, and mediation if required.

“It depends on the dynamic between the couple and what’s best in their circumstances, again, taking into account safety.”

When a couple decides to separate, negotiating interim arrangements for living situations, finances and childcare may need to be carried out immediately, especially if there is family violence involved.

“There needs to be stability for children from the very start of the separation process,” Ms Coles explained.

“Things are going to change, and there will need to be regular reviews of whatever the parenting arrangements are, unless there’s risk to a child, but nine times out of ten, it’s just about working with the other parent.”

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She said ‘fairness’ doesn’t come into play regarding children. What matters is what’s best for the children; however, in terms of property and finances, the agreement does need to be “fair, just and equitable”.

Some couples separate and remain friends, while others might be required to attend mediation sessions to resolve conflicts amicably.

Ms Coles said mediation could be a cost-effective and less adversarial approach to resolving disputes than going to court.

Debra Parker

Parker Coles Curtis founding director Debra Parker believes in the power of mediation. Photo: Parker Coles Curtis.

Debra Parker at Parker Coles Curtis is an Accredited Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner with an 80 per cent success rate for mediation. She is also the only lawyer in Canberra with a Specialist Accreditation in two areas – family law and dispute resolution.

“Debra can be the mediator and can also be the advocate,” Ms Coles said.

“I love mediation because you can get everyone in the same space or via Zoom, and all parties can focus on the same issue at the same time. You can avoid sending letters back and forth between lawyers and essentially roll up your sleeves and thrash out the issues – hopefully with a compromise at the end of the session.”

She said separating couples must also consider the long-term implications of their agreements, such as retirement plans and long-term care for children.

“They may be focussed on just getting through each day, but each person needs to think beyond their immediate concerns and plan for the future,” Ms Coles added.

While the ideal scenario was for couples to talk, prepare their documents and settle out of court, often within a month, Ms Coles said sometimes that was impossible.

“One partner can call the other to action if they have their head in the sand or refuse to negotiate,” she said.

“It’s disappointing if they have to go to multiple court listings or trials where they spend a week in court and are cross-examined. It’s stressful and costly, and the worst-case scenario.”

With a mix of compassion, skill and life experience, the award-winning team at Parker Coles Curtis Lawyers can help guide you through life’s biggest challenges.

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Using a single mediator to work through a separation agreement is certainly cheaper than engaging two separate lawyers. But to be clear, mediation only works if there is basic agreement between both parties and there is no animosity.

When I separated from my (ex) partner, we both took on our own lawyers and that was our experience. Letters were generated and passed back and forth between them, and our separate retainers were blown away within days with little to show for it. They were a money pit and we really felt they were in collusion to stretch time out.

We eventually paused everything out of frustration, and then decided to engage a mediator. Sure, he worked off a retainer also, but we soon had a formal agreement which we then submitted online to the Family Courts. No dependent children were involved, so the matter was dealt with by a magistrate reasonable quickly. Finally sorted, and coincidentally on the same day we were married 25 years earlier.

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