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Can your ex-spouse claim your property when you die?

Agreeing on a division of relationship property after you and your spouse separate can be fraught. Usually, emotions are highly charged.


When de facto couples separate, they can resolve their relationship property division immediately, and have no further financial involvement with each other. When married couples separate, however, they cannot divorce for two years and often divide their relationship property while still married. When a divorce does not take place immediately, this can mean the separated spouses still have rights – for example, to inherit if one of them dies. If the separated spouses do not intend this, their relationship property division must specifically address inheritance in order to prevent unintended consequences.

 


Relationship property agreement

A recent High Court decision[1] illustrates the type of problems that can arise. Alan O’Donoghue and Marc Comia married in 2016 and separated in 2019. The couple entered into a 2020 agreement about the division of their relationship property which was stated to be ‘in full and final settlement of all property claims each party has against the other, under any statutory enactment, in equity or in common law.’ The marriage was never formally dissolved. Alan died in 2021 without a will, so was ‘intestate.’

 

Separated spouse to benefit from intestacy?

Alan and Marc had no children. Alan was survived by his mother, but she gave up any interest in his estate. In those circumstances, unless the 2020 agreement was effective to resolve inheritance as well as relationship property matters, then Marc, as Alan’s husband (despite the separation) was entitled to the whole of Alan’s estate by virtue of section 77 of the Administration Act 1969, the legislation that sets out the shares in which surviving relatives are entitled to an intestate deceased’s estate.


Usually, unless there are special circumstances, the person with the highest beneficial interest in an estate will also be appointed administrator. Marc applied for letters of administration in Alan’s estate without disclosing the existence of the agreement. Marc knew that Alan’s brother, Russell, took the view that the agreement meant Marc was no longer entitled to inherit any of Alan’s property. If Marc had contracted out of any entitlements under s77 then Russell, rather than Marc, was entitled to his late brother’s estate and therefore entitled to letters of administration.

 

Contracting out of succession rights 


The High Court had to grapple with the question of whether it was possible to contract out of a statutory entitlement to inherit on intestacy under s77. Cases considering this issue are rare because it is usual for a person who has separated and entered a relationship property settlement to make a new will.

Further, the issue only arises where a marriage has not been formally dissolved after a separation; de facto relationships come to an end when the relationship finishes. It is only a marriage which can subsist after separation, and until the parties formally divorce.


The High Court determined, following a 2013 case,[2] that, as a matter of policy, contracting out of an interest under s77 was possible. However, for the ‘contracting out’ to be effective, the agreement in which it is undertaken must comply with the safe-guarding conditions set out in the Property Relationships Act 1976 (PRA). These conditions include that each party to the agreement receives independent legal advice before signing and that a lawyer who witnesses a party’s signature must certify that the implications of the agreement have been explained to that party. 


In Donoghue the agreement did not comply with these requirements. However, there is a procedure whereby a non-complying agreement can be declared to have effect anyway. Therefore, the court recalled the grant of letters of administration to Marc, appointed Russell as administrator of his brother’s estate and directed Russell to apply to the Family Court for a determination on the effectiveness of the agreement. All these extra steps could have been avoided.

 

Lessons to be learned

It is very welcome that the High Court has confirmed that it is possible for separating spouses to contract out of their entitlements under the Administration Act 1969. Naturally for any such agreement to be effective, it must comply with requirements of the PRA. The situation in which Alan left his brother Russell could have been avoided entirely if Alan had made a new will at the same time the agreement was entered into in 2020, which should be usual practice, or if Alan and Marc had divorced after their separation. 

  

If you are going through a separation, we strongly recommend you both make a new will immediately after the separation documentation is completed and/or you divorce as soon as practicable. It could save you and your family a great deal of time, money and emotion. Contact us on 09 407 7099 or info@lawnorth.co.nz if you would like to discuss your situation.


[1] O’Donoghue v Comia [2023] NZHC 2735.

[2] Warrender v Warrender [2013] NZHC 787.


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DISCLAIMER: All the information published in Trust eSpeaking is true and accurate to the best of the author's knowledge. It should not be a substitute for legal advice. No liability is assumed by the authors or publisher for losses suffered by any person or organisation relying directly or indirectly on this article. Views expressed are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the collective view of Law North Lawyers. Articles appearing in Trust eSpeaking may be reproduced with prior approval from the editor and credit given to the source. Copyright, NZ LAW Limited, 2024.


Editor: Adrienne Olsen. Adroite Communications. E: adrienne@adroite.co.nz. M: 029 286 3650

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