Spousal Maintenance After Divorce and the “Clean Break” Principle

“The clean break principle after divorce has found resonance with our courts for many years.  The aim of this principle is to ensure that the parties become financially independent of each other as soon as possible after divorce.” (Extract from judgment below)

Our courts always prioritise the interests of children in any marital breakup, and child maintenance orders are accordingly tailored to ensure that both parents honour their obligations to support their children financially – to the extent that each spouse is able to do so, and for so long as is necessary.

Spousal maintenance on the other hand requires a more delicate balancing act. In a nutshell, spouses have a “reciprocal duty” to support each other during the marriage, and although that duty ends when the marriage ends, courts still have a wide discretion to order either “permanent” or “rehabilitative” maintenance of the financially weaker spouse by the financially stronger spouse.

Let’s have a look at a good example of how this discretion is applied in practice –

A bitter divorce and a claim for “permanent” maintenance
  • A couple were married “out of community of property with accrual”.
  • Their eventual divorce action required the Court to adjudicate a litany of bitter disputes, allegations and counter-allegations of misconduct and abuse.
  • Whilst for our purposes we’ll concentrate on how the Court addressed the wife’s claim for “permanent maintenance” and the husband’s (reluctant) counter-offer of “rehabilitative maintenance” for a limited period of time, it is important to note that the maintenance issue was decided against the background of the other financial benefits awarded to the wife. She received 50% of the “accrual” in the estate, including a house, pension, and annuities – i.e. she did leave the marriage with a capital sum of money.
  • The wife had previously been granted an interim order of maintenance of R6,500 p.m. “pendente lite” (“pending the litigation”). At the divorce hearing she argued that her chances of ever becoming self-supporting were slim given her age, health, outdated qualification, and limited exposure in the open labour market.
  • Her husband on the other hand argued that she had “numerous skills and talents and has the potential to secure employment and earn a salary to support herself which when coupled with what she will receive from the accrued estate constitutes ample income to enable her to become self-sufficient.” Moreover he would retire in two years and his income would seriously decline as he would be dependent on his pension for his own support.
  • Before we consider the legal aspects, an important factual finding by the Court was that the wife did indeed have at her disposal “numerous administrative skills and talents which will enable her to secure future employment”, and that there was no medical evidence to suggest that she could not find employment.
The law and the maintenance order
  • As the Court put it: “The clean break principle after divorce has found resonance with our courts for many years.The aim of this principle is to ensure that the parties become financially independent of each other as soon as possible after divorce. This principle however has to be applied with due consideration of the particular circumstances of each case and if such circumstances permit.”
  • The parties, said the Court, clearly wanted to “cut all ties and put an end to the marriage. In these circumstances, achieving a clean break finds resonance with this court.”
  • Its conclusion: “Consistent with [the] principle of a clean break that resonates through our judgments, it is incumbent upon this court to equip the plaintiff to live independently of the defendant and to focus on developing and empowering herself to secure and sustain her future. In the circumstances, I am of the view that the required result which is the ultimate self-sufficiency of the plaintiff will be achieved by rehabilitative maintenance. I am further of the view that a proper analysis of the rationale behind the awarding of rehabilitative maintenance will conclude that an arbitrary period of the payment of rehabilitative maintenance will not address the ultimate achievement of self-sufficiency. A two year period of rehabilitative maintenance is justified in the circumstances.” (Emphasis supplied).
  • For a period of 24 months after the divorce therefore, the husband must pay rehabilitative maintenance of R8,000 p.m. in addition to keeping his ex-wife on his medical aid and paying all her medical expenses.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Can You Change Your Marital Regime After Marriage?

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it” (John Steinbeck)

One of the most important decisions you must make before you marry is what “marital regime” (“matrimonial property system”) you want to apply to your marriage.

To recap, you have three choices –

  1. Marry in community of property: This is the default in South Africa if you don’t sign an antenuptial contract (“ANC”) before you marry. All your assets and liabilities (with a few specific exceptions) are pooled in one joint estate. It’s probably not the best choice for most couples – you don’t for example want to be lumbered with a poor credit record (and a bank rejecting your bond application for example) or even with a sequestration application because of a spouse’s debts. But as the old saying goes, “it depends…”
  2. Marry out of community of property with accrual: The most popular option with couples these days, under this regime you keep as your own separate property whatever you brought into the marriage, but in the event of divorce or death you share equally in any subsequent “accrual” (growth in asset value built up during the marriage). You must specify accrual in your ANC, otherwise “without accrual” (as below) will apply.
  3. Marry out of community of property without accrual: As the name suggests, under this regime you have your own separate estates, and there is no sharing of accrual. The best choice for some couples in some cases, but probably not for most.
“Oops, we made the wrong choice; what now?”

A surprising number of couples tie the knot without any thought for the legal consequences, and only later do they learn that because they had no ANC they are married in community of property with all that that entails.

Or perhaps they did think it through but made the wrong choice at the time. For example, you could find yourself needing to improve your personal credit record, perhaps after applying to a bank for a mortgage bond and being rejected because of your spouse’s debts.

The good news is that all is not lost – you can still change regimes with a “postnuptial contract”. The bad news is that we are talking an expensive application to court here, and there are various requirements which may frustrate your application.

A court order is essential

The Matrimonial Property Act specifically allows a married couple to “jointly apply to a court for leave to change the matrimonial property system, including the marital power, which applies to their marriage”.

You will have to satisfy the court of three things, namely that

  1. there are sound reasons for the proposed change;
  2. sufficient notice of the proposed change has been given to all the creditors of the spouses; and
  3. no other person will be prejudiced by the proposed change.
The couple who didn’t get court authority
  • A couple had married out of community of property excluding accrual.
  • Thereafter, the wife drew up an agreement as “an ‘insurance policy’, to allay her fears of insecurity in the event of a divorce”. The husband agreed to set aside his marriage contract, specifying that his wife was entitled to half of his estate.
  • After some hesitation the husband signed this agreement, but critically it was never sanctioned by a court as required and was merely handed to friends for safekeeping.
  • During subsequent divorce proceedings, the wife was forced to abandon her main claim (that the agreement was valid and binding) precisely because of her failure to obtain a court order as set out above.
  • She also tried another tack, namely that the agreement was enforceable as an agreement “in anticipation of divorce”. This was rejected by the Supreme Court of Appeal on the facts, finding that the parties had had a “normal marital relationship” after the signing of the agreement, and that the wife had accordingly failed to prove that divorce “was in the parties” contemplation when the agreement was concluded”.
  • The Constitutional Court cemented her defeat in this regard by refusing its leave for her to appeal the SCA decision.

Ask your lawyer before you marry which marital regime is best for you. And if you didn’t do that, or if you change your mind later, you must ask a court to authorise your change of regime.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Extended: The Rights of Grieving Parents to Choose Burial After Pregnancy Loss

Expectant parents who lose a pregnancy before 26 weeks (the age set by the Births and Deaths Registration Act (BADRA) in its definition of “still-born”) have until now had no right to bury their foetus, which had to be incinerated as “medical waste”.

That has changed with a recent High Court order declaring the relevant provisions of BADRA unconstitutional. That order is suspended to give Parliament an opportunity to amend BADRA, plus it must also go to the Constitutional Court for confirmation. But in the interim the Court has allowed burial (via the issue of a “stillbirth certificate” or “declaration of stillbirth”) on request by the bereaved parent or parents. 

The Court declined to extend this new choice to foetal deaths resulting from human intervention (“voluntary induced termination”) so for now at least this new freedom to choose is available only to grieving parents in the case of natural deaths (miscarriages).


Who Gets the House on Divorce?

“I am a marvellous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house” (seven-times-divorced actress Zsa Zsa Gabor)

Historically 44% of South African marriages have ended in divorce, and there has reportedly been a 20% surge in new divorce applications since lockdown.

For those unfortunate couples whose marriages do eventually fall apart, often the most important asset in play from both a financial and an emotional perspective is the family home. So it is crucial for any couple contemplating marriage, or currently married but considering a split, to understand what our law says about who gets what on divorce. 

Your divorce order as issued by the divorce court will be the “final word” here. If you have been able to agree on a split of assets and liabilities your agreement will typically be contained in a “consent paper”, and agreement is of course very much “first prize” here. Particularly if you have children – exposing them to a bitter fight over assets and to the risk of having to leave their childhood home and neighbourhood will only add to the disruption and trauma in their lives. In any event if you can’t agree terms, you are in for some emotional, time-hungry and expensive litigation before a court finalises the split for you.

A variety of factors will be at play here, all linked to the question of what “marital regime” applies to your marriage so the first question you need to ask is whether you are married in or out of community of property – and if out, does accrual apply?

If you are married in community of property

This is the default marital regime for South African marriages, and if you didn’t sign an ante-nuptial contract (“ANC”) before you married, all your assets and liabilities at date of divorce (with a few specific exceptions) will automatically belong to both of you in “undivided shares” i.e. 50/50.  

Typically, your divorce order and/or consent paper will provide for one spouse to become the 100% owner, with a suitable financial adjustment between you to account for the value of the other spouse’s 50% share.

No formal transfer of the property in the Deeds Office is needed, your attorney will just arrange for an endorsement on the property’s title deed to transfer ownership. 

If you are married out of community of property 

You have two separate estates and what you bring into the marriage remains yours, as does any growth in asset value during the marriage. 

As to who keeps (or gets) the house, and as to how much if anything the other spouse must pay in return, that will depend on a host of factors including the terms of your ANC and whether you were married with or without “accrual”. 

“With accrual” is the default unless you specifically opt to marry “without accrual”. In practice most modern couples specifically opt for accrual, in which event the combined growth in value during the marriage of your two estates will be split between you.

If the house is currently registered in only one of your names and that spouse is to keep the house, no formal transfer nor endorsement of the title deed will be necessary. If however the other spouse is to become the registered owner, a full transfer of ownership in the Deeds Office is needed. Although an exemption from transfer duty applies in this case, there will still be other transfer fees and costs to consider.

If you are co-owners of the property (in other words, if you are jointly recorded as owners on the title deed) you will almost certainly want to transfer full ownership to the one spouse. Again, a full transfer will be needed (see above re costs). There is however nothing to stop you agreeing on a temporary or permanent continuation of the co-ownership after divorce, perhaps to minimise disruption to your children’s lives, or perhaps while you jointly market and sell it at the best price (in which event your agreement should specify in detail who will pay what costs, what the minimum purchase price will be and so on).

Who pays off the mortgage bond?

If you are currently registered as co-owners, both of you will be equally liable for the full remaining debt owing to the bank. If one of you is the owner and the other is to take transfer, the current owner remains solely liable for the loan debt until released by the bank.

Whichever spouse keeps (or takes over) sole ownership of the house will have to make a new loan application to the bank in his/her own name and be substituted as the sole debtor/mortgagor. 

If you get the house, how will you pay out your ex-spouse?

As above, normally there will be a financial adjustment between you to compensate the other spouse, and if you don’t have the funds available you may need to ask the bank for a second mortgage. 

You could of course also agree to sell the house and split the proceeds after settling the existing bond. 

What if our house is owned by a trust or company?

Houses and other properties have historically often been held in trusts or companies for estate planning and asset protection purposes, and our courts are regularly called upon to resolve bitter disputes along the lines of “it was all a sham, the house never really belonged the trust, so please Judge order the trust to put it back into the pot as a personal asset”.

The spouse making such a claim will generally have to prove some form of “abuse” of the trust before a court will order that the house in fact belongs to the other spouse personally. But there are grey areas here and professional advice specific to your particular circumstances is essential.  

Prevention being better than cure….

Your house could well be your marriage’s most important asset both financially and emotionally. Rather than fight over it when divorce looms, seek professional advice before you tie the knot on what marital regime is best for you, and on how best to sort out who gets the house if you should be unlucky enough to part ways down the line. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advices

© LawDotNews


Buying a Property: Check the Seller’s Marital Status!

“…a third party is expected to do more than rely upon a bold assurance by another party regarding his or her marital status” (quoted in judgment below)

If you are taking advantage of our current low interest rates and reduced selling prices to buy a property, make sure that you establish the seller’s marital status with something more than what the seller tells you.

Your risk comes in if the seller is married in community of property. That’s because, whilst our law generally allows spouses in such a marriage to “perform any juristic act with regard to the joint estate without the consent of the other spouse”, there are exceptions.

And one exception relates to immovable property. A spouse needs the written consent of the other to sell, mortgage or burden the property (by granting a servitude over it for example). Without that written consent the transaction is void, unlawful and unenforceable.

Which is where the danger comes in. Consider this scenario – you pay for and take transfer of a property from a seller who you think is unmarried, but a spouse suddenly appears and says “I never consented to that sale so it’s void. The transfer to you is cancelled so out you go and good luck getting your money back”. What now? 

Competing rights and a balancing act

There is of course a fine balancing act for courts involved here – on the one hand, the rights of the non-consenting spouse and on the other hand your rights as a good-faith buyer from a seller who you believed to be unmarried.  

A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment addressed exactly that situation.

“But I thought I was buying from an unmarried seller”
  • A husband married in community of property sold and transferred a house to a buyer in 2009. At the time, his wife was not living in the house, having moved to another part of the country due to old age.
  • When the seller passed away in 2013 his wife was appointed executrix of his deceased estate. Some four years later she successfully applied to the High Court for cancellation of the deed of transfer on the basis that the sale had been without her knowledge or consent.
  • The buyer appealed to the SCA on the basis that the wife’s consent to the sale should be “deemed” to have been given in that the relevant legislation provides for such deemed consent where a buyer “does not know and cannot reasonably know that the transaction is being entered into contrary to [the requirement for written consent]”. 
  • He had, said the buyer, acted bona fide (in good faith) as he had not known of the marriage: “At the time I purchased the property from the deceased/seller, he was staying alone in the said property and he also confirmed to me that he was not married. He signed the deed of sale and also the transfer documents alone as unmarried.”
What the buyer must prove

The buyer had to prove that he did not know, and could not reasonably have known, that consent was needed but lacking. 

What the Court here needed to decide was whether the buyer should at the time of the sale have known of the marriage and the lack of written consent. “A duty is cast on a party seeking to rely on the deemed consent provision” held the Court “… to make the enquiries that a reasonable person would make in the circumstances as to whether the other contracting party is married, if so, in terms of which marriage regime, whether the consent of the non-contracting spouse is required and, if so, whether it has been given.”

Finding that the buyer had indeed proved (1) that he did not know that the deceased was married and (2) that he could not reasonably have known this, the SCA allowed the appeal and the transfer to the buyer stands on the basis of deemed consent by the spouse. 

The facts of each case will be different, and it is important to bear in mind that in this particular matter the husband’s claim to be unmarried was supported not only by the absence of any sign of a wife but also by two official documents – the deed of transfer and the power of attorney to pass transfer.

The bottom line is that as buyer you must make “reasonable enquiries” as to the seller’s marital status and as to whether the other spouse’s written consent to the sale is needed.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Grandparents – When Must You Pay Maintenance?

“An inability on the part of the parents to maintain a child must be established before a grandparent will be legally liable to do so” (extract from judgment below)

One wonders how many grandparents are aware of (let alone plan for) the possibility that they may have a legal duty to support their grandchildren in certain circumstances.

It could be a heavy blow – trying to navigate one’s retirement financially can be hard enough without suddenly having to maintain not only yourself and your spouse but also a grandchild, possibly for decades. And what about the risk that when you die your deceased estate might remain liable – a drain, possibly a critical one, on your estate’s sufficiency to support your surviving spouse?

A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) decision confirms that –

  • As a grandparent you are potentially liable for maintenance during your lifetime but
  • When you die, your deceased estate will (as the law currently stands) not be liable. 
The adult granddaughter’s claim and the law

This was a damages claim against the executors of a grandfather’s deceased estate based on the proposition that the estate was liable to pay maintenance for a 30-year-old granddaughter unable to support herself because of psychiatric issues, mild intellectual disability and an autism spectrum disorder. The father had emigrated, had paid no maintenance, and was allegedly untraceable, whilst the mother’s ability or inability to fully support her child had not been established.

The SCA was asked to break new legal ground by extending a grandparent’s liability to his or her deceased estate, but on the evidence before it in this case (i.e. our courts may revisit this issue in the future) the Court declined to extend the law in this way, and set out our current law as follows –

  • Liability for maintenance generally depends on three factors –
    • The claimant’s inability to support him or herself.
    • His or her relationship with the person from whom support is claimed. 
    • That person’s ability to provide support.
  • The primary caregivers are the parents who have a duty of support as far as they are able to do so (this applies also to the parents’ deceased estates when they die). 
  • Parents and children have a reciprocal duty of support.
  • “If parents are unable to support their children who are in need of support, other relatives including grandparents, may be obliged to support them … But that duty is imposed first upon a nearer relative before it moves to remoter ones.” (Emphasis supplied).
  • However, as our law stands, a grandparent’s deceased estate is not liable.
In summary – 3 factors for liability

In other words, you (but currently not your deceased estate) could be liable to pay maintenance if –

  1. Your grandchild is not self-supporting, 
  2. Neither parent (nor their deceased estates) is financially able to provide the necessary support, and 
  3. You are financially able to do so.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

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Collecting Maintenance in Hard Times – Threaten Jail Time

“Compliance with court orders is always important. There is a particular scourge in this country of spouses, particularly husbands, failing to pay judicially ordered maintenance” (extract from second judgment below)

Getting money out of serial maintenance defaulters is a notoriously difficult exercise, but even the most recalcitrant and cunning dodger will baulk at the prospect of being locked up for contempt of court.

And our courts, mindful of their position as “upper guardian” to all children, have shown again and again that they will have no hesitation in acting firmly against the sort of bad-faith defaulters we are talking about.

What must you prove?

You must prove not only a deliberate breach of the court order, but also that the breach was “wilful” and in bad faith. Although normally in non-criminal matters the standard of proof required is “on a balance of probabilities”, in contempt proceedings you have to prove bad faith on the much higher standard required for criminal convictions i.e. “beyond reasonable doubt”. 

As the Court in the second case below put it: “If, on a conspectus of all the evidence, it is a reasonable possibility that the husband’s non-compliance was not wilful and mala fide, he cannot be subjected to criminal sanctions for contempt.”

Of course, genuine inability to pay, which is no doubt more common now than it was before the COVID-19 lockdown, is a different matter altogether. We are talking here about dodgers who are able to pay but refuse to do so. A defaulter who simply cannot pay should apply for a variation of the court order. If the order stands, payment must be made – end of story.

Two recent High Court decisions illustrate –

First case: A “brazen” defaulter’s choice – pay or go to jail 
  • A father had been ordered, per a 2017 divorce settlement agreement, to pay R15,000 p.m. maintenance for his two minor children. He stopped paying in early 2018 and by the time this matter reached court he had run up arrears of R537,499. 
  • In response to the mother’s application to have him jailed for contempt of court, the father pleaded poverty – a standard ploy.
  • The Court was having none of that, and the mother had no difficulty in proving her case for contempt. 
  • Pointing out that the father was earning R147,000 p.m. (R83,000 net plus R10,000 to a provident fund), that he was paying R11,000 p.m. for a BMW and R14,000 p.m. on online gambling and trading, and commenting that “father’s position is extraordinarily brazen” the Court declared him to be in contempt of court. 
  • To avoid 30 days behind bars he must pay off the arrears in instalments in addition to keeping up his monthly maintenance payments. He also has to pay all legal costs on the punitive “attorney and client” scale.
Second case: Sorry, dogs, it’s not quite the same for you

Although our courts naturally take a dim view of anyone disregarding any form of court order, jail time is not the only possible sanction. Thus, in another recent High Court case a fine (R20,000 conditionally suspended for three years) was imposed rather than a prison sentence.

  • An acrimonious divorce action found a husband ordered to pay his wife on an interim basis for a variety of household expenses, including (the aspect that has captured most attention in the media) expenses relating to the couple’s two dogs for dog food, a dog walker, and veterinary, medical, and pharmaceutical expenses.
  • The husband claimed a genuine misunderstanding of his obligations under the court order (not least regarding his various obligations vis-à-vis the dogs), a defence accepted by the Court in some regards but not in others.
  • He also claimed inability to pay as a result of the lockdown’s effect on his company and his resultant reduction in salary – a defence rejected by the Court on the basis that he had “failed to put up evidence which should have been available to him to support a claim of unaffordability”. Similarly, his counter-application to reduce the amount of cash maintenance payable failed.

As to why the defaulter in this case avoided a prison sentence (as requested by his wife) the Court concluded that “imprisonment is not called for. I am dealing with a first infraction, which is considerably narrower than what the wife alleged.” One wonders whether another factor in that outcome might have been the fact that no children were involved, just a wife seemingly “unattractively intent on extracting more than her ‘pound of flesh’” and two pampered pooches. Certainly, the wife’s failures led the Court to award the wife only 75% of her costs, and on the ordinary cost scale rather than on a punitive scale.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

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Friends and Lovers: Before You Lend Out Your Car…

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” (Shakespeare)

This is a case of a “love relationship” gone wrong but the principles of vehicle ownership apply to any situation in which you lend a motor vehicle to anyone else.

A widely-held misconception is that if you are the registered owner of a car, it is yours and you are the owner. Not so, as a recent High Court judgment aptly illustrates –

The registered owner unable to reclaim “her” car 
  • In what must at the time have seemed like a straightforward agreement between two people “in a love relationship”, a woman agreed to lend her lover a vehicle which she bought from a finance company under a loan agreement.
  • They had agreed verbally that he could use the vehicle for his personal use and would repay her for loan instalments, insurance, licencing, servicing, traffic fines and the like.
  • When the relationship soured, the woman asked the Court for an order returning the vehicle to her as owner. 
  • Although there was no dispute that she was indeed registered as owner of the vehicle, the Court dismissed her application on the basis that, whilst possession of a vehicle’s registration papers is prima facie (“at first view”) proof of ownership, it is never conclusive proof of ownership. Nor is any change of ownership required to be registered for transfer to take place. So in this case the registration papers did not prove ownership, the actual owner being the finance company.
  • This is different to the position with land, where registration of ownership in the Deeds Office proves ownership and is necessary for transfer of ownership. That no doubt is the origin of the myth that being registered as the owner of a car proves that you are the owner – an incorrect and dangerous assumption.
  • The woman was accordingly not the owner of the vehicle, rather the finance house was the owner in terms of the lease agreement which provided that it retained ownership until all amounts due under the agreement had been paid in full.
  • End result – the ex-lover keeps the car, for now at least.
Lessons for lending out cars…
  • Should you decide to lend out your car, make sure to do it under a written agreement – the parties in this case were lucky that they could agree on the terms of their verbal agreement as our law reports are replete with bitter and expensive litigation over what everyone said and who agreed to what verbally.
  • Include a term spelling out clearly your rights to recover possession of the vehicle. The woman in this case would have been in a far stronger position if the parties had agreed that, even if the man held up his end of the bargain to pay for all the loan instalments and other expenses, the woman still retained the right to reclaim the vehicle if their relationship ended (she still wouldn’t have sued as owner, just to enforce the agreement). 
  • For life partners and cohabiting couples this is yet another reminder that there is no such thing as a “common law marriage” in our law. There are no automatic marital or other rights attaching to your relationship and applicable when the relationship ends, so entering into a full cohabitation agreement is the only way to safeguard both your and your partner’s financial and personal rights.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Domestic Violence and the Lockdown: Your Personalised Safety Plan

“Preamble to the Domestic Violence Act: “To afford the victims of domestic violence the maximum protection from domestic abuse that the law can provide”

There is great concern that the COVID-19 crisis, particularly the mandatory “stay at home” lockdown phase, will see both an increase in the levels of domestic violence, and a decrease in the ability of victims to access help. It’s a worldwide concern and as the World Health Organisation puts it: “Stress, the disruption of social and protective networks, loss of income and decreased access to services all can exacerbate the risk of violence for women.”

South Africa’s Domestic Violence Act (“domestic violence” isn’t limited to cases of physical harm – it includes a very wide range of abusive conduct) provides legal protection to victims, especially to those most vulnerable such as women, children, disabled people and the elderly.   If you are a victim (or helping a victim) you should be aware of a victim’s rights to lay criminal charges and/or to apply for a protection order.  

Police officers attending to such cases must help victims to lay criminal charges, find shelter and obtain medical treatment where necessary. The Supreme Court of Appeal has confirmed that SAPS members have a positive duty to render assistance to victims.

But how can you achieve that with the lockdown restrictions and its constraints on your freedom of movement and ability to escape the abuser?

Your personalised safety plan

Note that from 14 May 2020 new lockdown regulations specifically allow you to move to a new home where “the movement is necessitated due to domestic violence”. 

Download here the National Shelter Movement of South Africa’s free PDF document “Domestic Violence Safety Planning During the Time of COVID-19” which will help you with suggestions for developing a personalised and practical Safety Plan during lockdown under these headings –

  • “Be Prepared” with a comprehensive list of helplines and contacts (both National and Provincial) and how to access them
  • “Reaching Out”
  • “Signalling for Help”
  • “Delete Searches/Requests for Help”
  • “Planning to Leave”
  • “Legally Speaking”
  • “Leaving”
  • “Staying Safe”.
How a protection order works

The “Staying Safe” section above suggests that you apply for a protection order if you don’t already have one, and that you get help in doing so from a shelter or other organisation. Or you can yourself approach your nearest Magistrates Court and ask for assistance.  

If an order is granted, the issue of a warrant of arrest is authorised at the same time.  The warrant is suspended on condition that there is no breach of the terms of the protection order.  To have the warrant executed, you will need to give details of any violation of the order on affidavit – be aware that you will both face criminal charges and risk a damages claim if you intentionally make any false allegations.  

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Divorce in a Time of Lockdown – What Grounds Can You Rely On?

Note: If, as we hope, you personally have no need for an article on divorce, please think of passing this on to anyone you know who may find it relevant and useful.

The National Lockdown has thrown together many couples not used to spending “24/7” time in each other’s company. Relationships will have strengthened for many couples, but others will be struggling. The fears, anxieties and money worries now looming over us all certainly won’t haven’t helped. 

If your marriage is one of those unfortunate ones that is foundering, counselling hasn’t helped or won’t help, and you have come to the decision that divorce is your only option, be aware that you need a formal court order before your divorce will be legally recognised.

Moreover our law does not recognise the concept of “legal/judicial separation” so if you decide to just physically separate without divorcing, you should take professional advice on drawing up a contract in the form of a “separation agreement”. Normally this would be for a trial period but you could also agree to a longer-term separation. 

The 3 grounds for divorce

In most cases couples opt for formal divorce rather than long-term separation, and it is important to appreciate that a court will only grant a divorce order if it is satisfied that at least one of the three recognised grounds for divorce exists. 

In practice most couples will fall under the first ground i.e. “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” but to give you the full picture, the grounds for divorce in full are (all quotes are straight from the Divorce Act) –

  1. Irretrievable breakdown of marriage

    This is by far the most commonly relied on ground for divorce: “A court may grant a decree of divorce on the ground of the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage if it is satisfied that the marriage relationship between the parties to the marriage has reached such a state of disintegration that there is no reasonable prospect of the restoration of a normal marriage relationship between them.” 

    The court may take into account “any facts or circumstances which may be indicative of the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage” and may also accept evidence that –
    1. The spouses have not lived together for “a continuous period of at least one year immediately prior to the date of the institution of the divorce action”; 
    2. The spouse being sued for divorce has committed adultery and the other spouse “finds it irreconcilable with a continued marriage relationship”; or  
    3. The spouse being sued for divorce “has in terms of a sentence of a court been declared an habitual criminal and is undergoing imprisonment as a result of such sentence”.
      However: “If it appears to the court that there is a reasonable possibility that the parties may become reconciled through marriage counsel, treatment or reflection, the court may postpone the proceedings in order that the parties may attempt a reconciliation.”
  2. Mental illness    

    The court must be satisfied of two things here –   
    1. The spouse must have been admitted to or detained in an institution under our mental health legislation as a patient, State patient or mentally ill convicted prisoner, and “has, for a continuous period of at least two years immediately prior to the institution of the divorce action, not been discharged unconditionally”, and 
    2. After having heard the evidence of at least two psychiatrists, of whom one shall have been appointed by the court, that the defendant is mentally ill and that there is no reasonable prospect that he will be cured of his mental illness.”
  1. A state of continuous unconsciousness “by reason of a physical disorder”

    Again the court must be satisfied of two things here –
    1. The unconsciousness must have lasted “for a continuous period of at least six months immediately prior to the institution of the divorce action”, and
    2. After having heard the evidence of at least two medical practitioners, of whom one shall be a neurologist or a neurosurgeon appointed by the court, that there is no reasonable prospect that the defendant will regain consciousness.
Having grounds for divorce is not the end of the story

You will need also to satisfy the court that “the provisions made or contemplated with regard to the welfare of any minor or dependent child of the marriage are satisfactory or are the best that can be effected in the circumstances”.

Consider also, and prepare for, questions around division of assets and maintenance.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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