Relationship property issues 


See Relationship property - the basics for general information about how the Property (Relationships) Act works.

How will our property be divided if our relationship ends after less than three years?

The Property (Relationships) Act has special rules about dividing property if your relationship lasts for less than three years. These relationships are referred to as "relationships of short duration" and the rules generally apply to:

  • married couples who have been together for less than three years
  • civil union partners who have been together for less than three years
  • de facto relationships that last for less than three years where:
    • the couple have a child, or
    • one partner has made a substantial contribution to the relationship and it would cause serious injustice if they were not covered.

Note that the length of the relationship will take into account any time you were in a de facto relationship before you got married or entered a civil union.

Where the relationship is a marriage or civil union
For marriages and civil unions that last less than three years, the general principle is that equal sharing won't apply to the family home and chattels if:

  • they were owned by one of you before you got married or entered a civil union, or
  • they were acquired by one of you as a gift or under a will before you got married or entered a civil union, or
  • one of you made a much greater contribution to the marriage or civil union

In these cases, the family home and chattels will be divided according to your contribution to the marriage or civil union.

For other relationship property, equal sharing applies unless one of you has made a clearly greater contribution to the relationship. In these cases, the relationship property will be divided according to your contribution to the marriage or civil union.

Where the relationship is de facto
For a de facto relationship that lasts for less than three years, but where the other criteria set out above apply, the relationship property will be divided according to the contribution of each partner to the relationship. Whether there is a de facto relationship in terms of the Property (Relationships) Act and when that relationship began, will be for the Court to decide.

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Does the Property (Relationships) Act apply if one of us dies?

If your relationship is covered by the Act and one of you dies, the surviving spouse or partner may choose between having the relationship property divided according to the Property (Relationships) Act, or taking what they are entitled to according to the deceased's will (or, if there is no will, what they are entitled to as a spouse or partner under the rules of intestacy).

The surviving spouse or partner would need to take legal advice before making their choice, and the choice must be recorded and certified by a lawyer.

The decision needs to be made within six months of the death of the other spouse or partner or, if administration of the estate was granted within that period, within six months of the grant of the administration.

If no decision is made after six months, then by default the surviving spouse receives what has been left according to the deceased’s will.

There is more information about this on the Ministry of Justice website. You can also read our information on Wills.

The deceased partner’s estate is bound by any property-sharing agreement that the two of you have entered into (i.e. if you contracted out of the Property (Relationships) Act), however the Court can set aside that agreement if following it would result in serious injustice.

It’s important to note that if you and your partner own the family home as a joint tenancy and one of you dies, the other will automatically become the owner of the house – regardless of what has been instructed in the deceased’s will. More about this is on our Land titles page.

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Does the Property (Relationships) Act apply if one of us dies when we have been together for less than three years?

If the relationship is a marriage or a civil union
If you are married or in a civil union and one of you dies before you have been together for three years, then even though your relationship is of ‘short duration’, the Property (Relationships) Act will apply as if you had been together longer. The surviving spouse or partner has the right to an equal share of relationship property under the Act (unless the Court considers that it would be unjust), or can take what has been left to them under the deceased’s will.

If the relationship is de facto
If you are in a de facto relationship for less than three years and one of you dies the surviving partner can only make use of the Act if:
  • there is a child of the relationship or
  • the surviving partner made a substantial contribution to the relationship, and the court is satisfied that not making the order would result in serious injustice.

In this case the surviving partner can choose to take what has been left to them under the deceased’s will or to get a share of relationship property under the Act that is based on their contribution to the relationship (not an equal share).

If you are in a de facto relationship of short duration that does not meet the above criteria, then if one of you dies the surviving partner will be entitled to whatever has been left to them in the deceased’s will (or under the laws of intestacy if there is no will).

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I’ve had my business since before I got married, and my husband helped me in the business but did not put any money into it. Can he claim a share of my business now that we are splitting up?


As a general rule under the Property (Relationships) Act, you and your partner are each entitled to half of all the relationship property.

If you apply to the Family Court for a decision, you can argue that because you owned the business before you were married, it should be classified as separate property. If the Family Court agrees then your husband would not be entitled to half of the business.

On the other hand, he can argue that because he has helped you out, he has increased the value of your business and that the increase in value is relationship property of which he is entitled to a half share.

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My former partner has left me with money owing on rent and bills. Am I liable for all of those debts?

You could be liable for personal debts (even if they are solely in your partner’s name) if they would be considered relationship debts. Either partner can be pursued for the repayment of relationship debt.

Relationship debt includes any joint debts (e.g. a loan in both of your names, rent for a tenancy which names both of you as the tenants). It also includes a debt that is solely in your partner’s name if:

  • the debt was for the purpose of buying, improving, maintaining or repairing relationship property (e.g. a loan on a car that you shared, a business if you both benefited from the resulting income);
  • the debt was for the benefit of both partners in managing the household (e.g. the rent on the home you shared; debt on a credit card used to buy household items)
  • the debt is the result of the cost of bringing up any children you have together.

You could also be liable for your former partner’s debt if you are the guarantor of your former partner’s credit contract.

If your former partner owes money to Work and Income because they did not notify Work and Income when your relationship began, then Work and Income can hold either of you liable for that debt.

It’s useful to know that if you have a credit card or finance card in your name and you obtain a second card for your partner to use, then you are solely liable for any money owing on both your card and the additional card. (This is not the same as having a joint account, where either cardholder can be pursued for the credit card debt.

Ideally you and your ex-partner will be able to negotiate over how you will share your relationship debts. It will be useful to get this in writing and signed by both of you as proof of your agreement.

When a relationship ends it's usually a good idea to close any joint bank accounts or debt payment accounts, and start new accounts under your own name. You should make sure that any automatic payments to or from the joint accounts are transferred to your new accounts where appropriate, so that you don’t accidentally miss payments.

If you're not able to discuss such things with your former partner, you can use the Disputes Tribunal or Family Court to help sort things out. See our Recovery of Debts page for more information about claiming money through the Disputes Tribunal.

In the meantime, tell the creditor (the person or organisation to whom the money is owed) about your situation. In this circumstance, you may be eligible for hardship provisions on any credit contracts you have. Contact your local CAB for help at any stage.

More information about sorting out your finances after separation is on the Sorted website.

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Who will get custody of our dog when we separate?

The law treats family pets as “family chattels”, along with - for example - household furniture. Family chattels are normally evenly divided when a couple’s relationship ends. It is up to the two of you to agree on the specifics.

Most separating couples are able to agree on the care and contact arrangements for their pet, taking into consideration the needs of the animal (e.g. at whose home is the pet safest, who is able to spend more time with the pet). If you can do this, it’s a good idea for the arrangement to be included in a written separation agreement in case there’s a dispute about it later.

If you can’t agree on who your dog will live with, you can try mediation or, failing that, going to the Family Court. Be aware that there is a cost for these options, especially the latter.

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My former partner wants to stay in the family home, but I want to sell it so that we can divide the proceeds between us. What are our options?

Unless ordered by the Family Court, neither of you can sell the family home without the other ex-partner’s consent, or force the other to sell the family home.

If you can’t agree on a solution, you can apply to the Family Court for a decision. For example, your ex-partner can apply for an “occupation order” that allows them to remain in the house. If the court grants an occupation order, you can ask the court to order your ex to pay“occupational rent” to you to compensate you for not being able to benefit from your share of the house. The amount of occupational rent they have to pay might be adjusted if they are paying for costs related to the house, such as repairs.

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Can I get legal aid if we need help from the Family Court to settle our relationship property dispute?

If you are eligible, you can get legal aid for a relationship property dispute that goes to Court.Visit our legal aid page for more details.