Peter Carew’s 30 years of experience in family law has given him some insights into relationships. These tips are mainly for people to consider before their relationship gets to the ‘disaster plan’ stage, he says. “If they resonate with you, it’s not too late. There are things you can do to make the relationship better.”

1. Have balance in your life – eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.

“Relationships need to be just as balanced. We need to spend time on them,” says Carew. “People often tell me they ‘grew apart’. What they are really saying is that they never made the plan to grow together. “I’m lucky; I’ve learnt from other people’s mistakes. I’ve been married 31 years and intend to stay that way.”

2. If there’s a problem, admit it and get help sooner rather than later.

“When a marriage comes to an end, one person is often willing to move on, into their perceived ‘blue sky’, while the other party never saw it coming.”

“Often people know their marriage is in trouble, but it’s not discussed and they do nothing about it.”

3. Keep your spouse informed about what’s going on – be it good, bad or indifferent.

“A common theme in relationship breakdowns is ‘I don’t know what’s been going on,’ which is really about a lack of trust. Often one person is responsible for managing the finances and the other says they’ll do the other bits and pieces. I don’t think that works.”

4. Don’t give up your career for your partner/marriage.

“If I was giving anyone a tip for the longevity of a marriage, it would be that both parties maintain their qualifications. Working and earning adds meaning and purpose to life, even if it’s part-time work. And at the end of a broken-down relationship, it’s a factor taken into account when there may be a loading for spousal maintenance.”

5. Be careful how you draft your will.

“Traditionally wills used to be: ‘I’ll leave everything to my spouse, and if my spouse pre-deceases me, to my children.’ The difficulty is that there’s no tax planning attached to it. “There’s also no protection if our children have greedy spouses. Where there are inheritances in excess of $200,000 or so, there ought to be testamentary trusts-type wills drafted to protect them from greedy spouses.”

6. Throughout your marriage, keep good records from banks, the tax department, accountants, lawyers, etc. They can quickly clear up disputes and prevent rancour.

7. Never sign your spouse’s signature on a document, no matter how convenient it is. (If you have power of attorney, you use your own signature.)

8. For a second marriage or defacto relationship in particular, get a sensible, quarantining financial agreement that doesn’t try to do too much.

We are now able to enter into Financial Agreement before, during and after a relationship. Before is like a pre-nuptial; during is like a living arrangement; and after sets out the financial arrangement at the end of the relationship. You should quarantine the ‘crown jewels’ – those items that are singularly most important to you. Many of the Financial Agreements that are challenged have tried to do too much. They set out how much per week and what the percentage division will be. A better way is to protect maybe the matrimonial home, maybe the business or a combination of investments, so they don’t form part of the assets the Family Court can seek to divide between the parties. Other Agreements are challenged because of drafting technical errors, which is why it’s vital to obtain advice from a lawyer who specialises in family law.

9. Understand the grief cycle and the ‘anger’ phase.

“This tip is as much for us – lawyers – in dealing with clients,” says Carew. “When a marriage comes to an end, one person is often willing to move on, into their perceived ‘blue sky’, while the other party never saw it coming.

“For most people, the grief cycle takes two years. The first stage is nervous shock for the one who didn’t see it coming: ‘Oh, my God. It’s all my fault. Take everything.’ Then through the sadness phase, they are at least able to work and communicate reasonably well, but if you ask them how their spouse is, they go straight back to the nervous shock phase.

“This leads to the anger phase, which mostly isn’t such a bad thing. I’m not talking about people throwing bricks through windows. It’s about people rationalising: ‘It’s not just my fault. It takes two to tango.’ They often get annoyed at how they took the blame for it.

“Then there’s the coming out phase.” Some people in the nervous shock/sadness phase will be in litigation simply to have a form of communication with the partner who has moved on. “So it’s important for us to know where clients sit in that spectrum so we know how to deal with them.”

10. Maintain respect. The reality is that, if there are children in the relationship, you’re going to be dealing with your ex-partner at weddings, parties, christenings, funerals, etc.

“It’s important that you leave respect on the table. That way you can look forward to the years to come without thinking ‘Oh, my God – he’s coming,’ or ‘I don’t have to sit on the table with her, do I?’  This can be avoided if people are sensible and pragmatic.”

10 Ways To Keep It Together originally appeared as a part of “Persons Of Interest” By Steve Packer, View: A magazine for Bank of Melbourne Private, 02 Summer 2013.

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