If a marriage, civil union or de facto relationship ends after lasting for three years or more, the partners must divide their relationship property according to the Property (Relationships) Act 1976’s general rule of equal sharing.
If the relationship has lasted for less than three years, the general rule of equal sharing will not apply.
Few marriages last for less than three years. According to Statistics New Zealand, the median duration of marriages ending in divorce has been rising since the early 1990s, and was 14 years in 2016, compared to 12 in 1977. This suggests that few marriages are short-term marriages. There is little data about civil unions.
A more difficult question is whether three years is the right length of time for when equal sharing should apply to a de facto relationship. There has been little research on the duration of de facto relationships in New Zealand.
Here are reasons three years might be too short:
- People may drift into relationships without realising the legal consequences.
- A relationship of three years might not have reached the stage where the general rule of equal sharing is appropriate. By three years, some people might not think their relationship involves the same commitment and permanence as a marriage or civil union. Other couples might see their relationship as a stepping-stone to marriage, which is when they really commit to the relationship.
- Some people have more than one intimate relationship in their lifetime. That might mean that some people must divide property multiple times, which could erode their assets.
But there are reasons three years might be an appropriate length of time:
- The three-year rule has been the law for many years now. Many people know about it. If it changed, there might be confusion.
- Many people may invest in a relationship that lasts for less than three years. They might pool money together to buy assets, or support their partner with money and emotional commitment. If a couple have children together, the nature of the relationship will change.
- A relationship still must be a de facto relationship before the general rule of equal sharing applies. The Property (Relationships) Act 1976’s definition of de facto relationship requires a level of commitment and therefore excludes casual relationships.