The Supreme Court has decided that a polyamorous (in this case three-way) relationship is covered by the laws on dividing relationship property on a break-up of the relationship. The relationships can be split into and treated as different, distinct, relationships for the purposes of the Property Relationship Act.

A married couple met a third person and they entered into what would become a long term (15-year) relationship. The married couple moved into a property owned by the new partner. 

The trio lived together in a relationship. They shared the same bed, made joint purchases, ran businesses from the property, and all contributed to the maintenance and upkeep of the property. The married couple also held a private ceremony for the new partner in which they were given identical rings.

After 15 years all three partners to the relationship separated. The two partners that had been married made a claim against the third for an interest in the property they had all been living in. 

The two people making the claim argued that the law should apply to them as if they were each in a separate de facto relationship with the third partner.

The claim was first heard in the Family Court, which referred the matter to the High Court, which in turn determined that the division of relationship property at law could not apply to more than two people.

The Court of Appeal later heard an appeal of this decision, and upheld the High Court decision. This decision was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court determined that polyamorous relationships can be treated at law as separate relationships. In this case, there were three distinct relationships: one between A and B, one between A and C, and one between B and C.

There were a number of important observations that the Court made in making their decision.

The first observation the Court made was that relationships do not need to be exclusive in order for the law to apply. This is because Parliament included in the legislation situations where a person has been in, or is currently in, multiple de facto relationships.

The Court also decided that for the purposes of the law requiring people “live together as a couple”, it is important to look at the nature of the relationship itself, rather than other people living at the same property. This is important for people living in flatting situations, or with children and other family.

It was also noted that a “vee arrangement”, where a person has a relationship with two different people (but those other people do not have a connection), could be considered two qualifying relationships. The Court decided that the more important question is whether each relationship qualifies as a de facto relationship, civil union, or marriage under the Act.

Finally, the Court decided that a polyamorous (in this case, triangular) relationship can be treated as three qualifying relationships. The Court decided that this is no different to a “vee arrangement”, which Parliament allowed at law. Rather, the question is whether each relationship meets the requirements of the law and therefore is subject to division of relationship property.

If each separate relationship is a qualifying relationship at law, then the law dividing property must be applied. The Court referred the case back to the Family Court in order to determine how the relationship property will be divided between three parties instead of two.

It is important to know your property rights as part of a long-term relationship. If you are confused about your relationship property rights, it pays to seek advice from a professional with experience in the area.

 

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Shaun Cousins and Hunter Flanagan-Connors