In a property settlement dispute the Court considers the contributions made by each party to the relationship, namely:
- Financial contributions;
- Non-financial contributions; and
- Contributions towards the welfare of the family and the home.
In the past, the Court viewed homemaker and parenting contributions as being of lesser value to the financial contributions of the breadwinner. Thankfully, over time the Court has come to accept the importance and value of the homemaker and parenting role and the contributions are now generally treated as equal.
There is a situation that arises however, where the breadwinner has so-called “special skills” that have generated substantial wealth for the parties thereby enlarging their asset pool. The breadwinner argues that this wealth brought into the relationship should be treated as a “special contribution” thereby earning him “brownie points” and a larger slice of the asset pool.
A line of cases from 1992 dealt with this situation and in the majority of cases the Court accepted the argument and the breadwinner was awarded a greater percentage of the parties asset pool.
More recently, however the Court has rejected this argument including the most recent case of Fields & Smith (2015). In that case, the Husband and Wife were married for 29 years. They had three children together all of whom were of adult age at the time of trial. The parties had accumulated an asset pool of between $31-39 million which largely consisted of a construction business and the former matrimonial home worth around $10 million.
During the marriage, the Wife had the accepted and agreed role of homemaker and parent. The Husband was the primary breadwinner operating a very successful construction business. The Wife was also directly involved in certain aspects of the business both as a director and shareholder.
At trial the Husband argued that he had been the driving force in the success of the parties’ business and that due to his “special skill” in making the contributions he should receive 70% of the asset pool.
Conversely, the Wife argued that their wealth was a result of “an economic, domestic and emotional partnership” and it was unjust to distinguish between their contributions. Accordingly, the Wife sought a 50/50 division of the asset pool.
Ultimately the Court accepted the Husband’s argument and decided that he should receive a property settlement of 60% and the Wife 40% of the parties’ total net assets.
Both parties appealed this decision.
On appeal, the Full Court determined that there was no binding rule of “special contributions” and adjusted the original property settlement from a division of 60/40 in the Husband’s favour to an equal division of 50/50 between the parties.
The Court held that the contributions of both parties over a long marriage were substantial and significant, including the Wife’s contributions to the welfare of the family. It was highlighted that the Family Law Act does not say one kind of contribution should be treated as less important or valuable than another.
This decision highlights the Court’s changing attitude to property settlement disputes and more particularly the way contributions are treated and valued. Evidently it is becoming increasingly difficult to successfully mount an argument that one party has made a greater contribution to the parties’ asset pool by reason of their “special skill.” It seems the playing field for homemakers and breadwinners is now more or less equal.