I've just got home to find my partner has cleared out the house and left

Over the years we have had many clients who have received this kind of shock and just as many who have taken this course of action.  It might surprise you that lawyers will sometimes advise a client to gather their possessions and take off.  The usual reason a party to a relationship will leave the other party without any notice at all is fear of a violent reaction.  However, sometimes a person will leave this way to avoid the distressed pleading of the partner who is being left behind.  A separation, especially when one party “did not see it coming”, can be highly charged with emotion. 

Lawyers can, and sometimes do, advise a client to remove possessions and paperwork in a swift and decisive fashion especially:

  • if the items have sentimental value or will be costly to replace; or
  • if it involves important original documentation or paperwork about the assets and liabilities of the relationship, the history of contributions towards them and perhaps even legal documents concerning a prior property settlement or inheritance. 

Having such items in your sole possession does not mean that you will be able to keep them forever.  Confirmation of ownership of an item of furniture for example is only possible after a final property settlement court order has been made. It’s fundamental in Family Law matters that each party discloses all relevant documentation to the other party and it is a quite common requirement that an original document be returned to the original owner. 

It is important to remember that if a lot of household furniture and effects have been removed from their usual place into storage or into a new home set up by the departing party that insurance arrangements should be updated.  The current policy of insurance may not apply if the items have been moved somewhere else. You should also take steps to secure any remaining possessions and paperwork and consider changing the locks to the house. It’s not common for there to be a second attempt to take items, but it does happen.

The sudden removal of possessions and paperwork is often accompanied by major withdrawals from bank accounts.  If this has happened to you, your next step should be to check whether all savings have been depleted, and whether there is any “room left” on credit cards or any line of credit.  If there are still funds available, then it is best to remove some or all of it to your own account and to alter the banking arrangements so that both parties have to authorise a withdrawal or any increase in a line of credit or level of credit card facility.

The good news is that funds withdrawn by one party or the incurring of new debt by one party on a joint facility after separation, can and will be taken into account in overall property settlement.  However, you will both be legally liable to the bank for a level of debt that might suddenly have a higher level of mandatory minimum repayment required.  There may need to be a conversation, or even an exchange of solicitors’ letters, about how debts are to be paid in the short term. 

A sudden departure with a lot of possessions is usually only the beginning of a series of  topics that need to be discussed.  Sometimes the departing party will get in touch quite soon and want to talk.  My usual advice to a client is for them to listen and make notes but don’t make any concessions or promises until that client has had the benefit of some legal advice about their overall situation. 

If a client is wary of meeting up with his or her former partner, it’s useful to do this on neutral ground and preferably with someone else present as a support person.

If you hear nothing from your departing former partner and no note has been left for you, then you may find a letter from a lawyer arrives quite soon, requesting that you make contact only via that lawyer. If you haven’t seen the separation coming, this can be hurtful, frustrating and of course, costly, if you then engage your own lawyer.

Of course, if young children are involved then their whereabouts and welfare is of paramount importance. Pursuing this issue, when one parent has simply left without warning, is almost certainly going to require legal advice, after friends, family and the SA police have provided some initial lines of enquiry. This is a bigger subject than can be addressed in this article alone.

In a perfect world, people would reach a mutual agreement to separate and each feel as wholehearted about the decision to do so as they probably did when they agreed to marry or move in together, in earlier, better times.  However it is often the case that only one party feels the relationship is over and is committed to acting accordingly, leaving the other party quite shocked but yet forced to deal with the situation.

Family and friends can provide much needed emotional and practical support during this difficult time but the objective advice a solicitor can provide is often invaluable.  After all, we have likely seen it all before and have provided advice from the perspective of both the leaving and the left behind partner, giving us a wealth of experience on both sides of the fence. Should you need legal advice, please don’t hesitate to call us on (08) 8414 3400.

This article was written by Partner, Jennifer Goodale

Practice Area: Family Law

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