The break-up of a settled relationship of whatever nature represents a big change in circumstances and whether it has been considered for a while or is a reaction to circumstances, in the medium and long term the same things will need to be sorted out. In the short term, you need to prioritise and get some things right to have a foundation of arrangements on which to build.
What should I do straight away?
The following should be dealt with urgently and depending on your personal circumstances, you might need immediate legal advice.
- Protect yourself and your children
- Check your options about where to live
- Find out about your money rights
- Contact your bank and similar financial businesses you deal with
- Preserve your assets
1. Protect yourself and your children
If there has been violence towards you or the children or you feel unsafe because of threats or the past behaviour of your partner, then you might want to contact an organisation that can help you assess your options, both practical and legal. Abuse is not always plain physical or sexual violence and can manifest itself through emotional abuse and other controlling behaviour such as through money or limiting your freedom.
There are charities and other non-profit-making organisations offering free advice.
You can contact such organisations anonymously. They know how to help people plan an exit strategy and can refer people to safe emergency accommodation.
In some cases, it may be possible to obtain a court order which allows you to live in your home without the other person being allowed to live there, which is called an ‘occupation order’ and a solicitor can also ask for you to have a ‘non-molestation’ order which makes otherwise legal behaviour (such as approaching your home or calling you) unlawful, adds to the seriousness of further bad behaviour towards you, in addition to the general criminal law protecting you.
Local areas have ‘Safeguarding Teams’ and there may be Domestic Violence teams in your local police.
There are some circumstances in which you can get assistance with qualified lawyers through what is often called ‘Legal Aid’ and details can be found on government website at: https://www.gov.uk/civil-legal-advice
2. Check your options about where to live
Housing rights depend on a number of legal factors and are a mix between property law, family law and statutory provisions such as regarding social housing.
Your housing rights will depend on what type of housing you live in -owned or rented, whether you are married / in a civil partnership or cohabiting.
As circumstances vary and the law is often very fact-sensitive, it is better to take advice from an expert either in social housing/benefits (such as Citizens’ Advice) or from a solicitor, particularly when it comes to owner-occupied property.
A solicitor may be able to apply to the court for temporary rights under family law which will be different from your longer-term legal or property rights and give you ‘breathing space’ whilst you make long-term plans. Sometimes all that is needed is to approach your former partner in the right way and avoid the need to ask a judge to intervene.
Homelessness is a legal issue as well as a social one. Avoiding homelessness, especially deliberate homelessness should be high in your thought-processes.
3. Find Out About Your Money Rights
If you are in work, your separation is unlikely to change your income from your employer, although you will probably want to notify them of your change of address, once you have one and perhaps to mark your employee file to remove your partner as your contact. Your employer should not reveal your information under Data Protection laws, but making sure that they are alert to not breaching your privacy might be prudent.
Even if you have not claimed benefits before, if you are not in work or are not well-paid, you might be entitled to state benefits to improve your finances and be less reliant on your former partner.
It can take time to negotiate support from your partner if you were married or in a civil partnership, which apart from child support are the usual requirements to use the legal process to get financial help, so it may be that you can obtain benefits for a time until that long-term arrangement has been sorted.
Credit reference agencies check who is registered as living at your address, which can affect you by association. If your ex-partner is moving out, you need to make sure that they are no longer registered at your address. If you can, make sure that their name is removed from any utility bills and notify your local authority. You may be entitled to a reduction in your council tax, so it is in your interests for them to know your ex-partner is not living there.
In the longer run, even if post is re-directed, you will want post to go directly to their new address, so that it does not appear that they co-reside with you.
4. Contact your bank and similar financial businesses
Some places that keep and process your money/financial transactions are banks and some are not. The regulations on such business can differ, but for you as a customer, the issues are about ownership, authority and practicality, so treat them all with similar seriousness.
What to do depends on whether you move out or your former partner does, but if you leave then you want your bank to have up-to-date contact details for you, even if you primarily use online banking.
Notify the people you have accounts with as to your change of address, if you move. That should really be all you need to do as the accounts are under your sole control. You will probably want to review your standing orders and direct debits to ensure that they are still appropriate.
If you have joint accounts, then you will have different issues depending on whether the account is in credit or if it is overdrawn/has an overdraft facility. A positive balance can be drawn down by either party under banking arrangements, which will not usually require both account owners to authorise transactions, but that does not mean that the funds are necessarily jointly-owned as between yourselves. If you have put money into that account because you borrowed money to repay another loan or pay for a large joint expense, such as a car or a new kitchen, then taking that money for your sole use might be improper and just because the bank does not stop you doing so, that does not mean that it is right to empty that joint account.
You can take legal advice about your financial rights and the ownership of money, but if you are worried that the money will disappear or be recklessly dissipated, then taking it for safekeeping might be worth considering. Means-tested benefits are affected by what money you have under your control and so taking money that is not yours to avoid it being lost might not be helpful to you, so it is worth having advice on such issues.
Emptying a joint account may erode trust and cause financial problems. Even if you have a mandate to deal with your former partner’s business banking or their personal accounts, that should not be used improperly and doing so can break criminal law, particularly if the money belongs to a business. Even if that person is 100% shareholder, the money is not theirs in their personal capacity until it has been passed over to them as ‘dividends’ i.e. profit from their shares.
Dealing with jointly-owned money needs careful consideration and people need to act within the general law and not just do things because it is convenient for them.
It is wise to assess the consequences of your actions, both short and long term: doing something rash like emptying a bank account can obliterate the trust that may be needed later.
Closing joint accounts and mortgage-linked accounts
However, you should try to prevent the joint account being used without your permission or have the account closed. With a joint account, if your ex-partner uses the overdraft facility, you will be liable to repay the money so far as the bank is concerned, even if between you and your partner it is agreed otherwise.
Notify the bank, put in place safeguards and/or close the account is best, but sometimes there are impediments to that, such as your mortgage.
The mortgage may be going out of that account and if the mortgage is with the same business as the joint account for banking, then you need to agree a solution with the co-holder of the account as soon as you can. The balance will be secured against the property, but your credit rating may be affected by an unauthorised overdraft or an overdraft exceeding the agreed limit.
The arrangement can be changed so that withdrawals can only be made with both signatures, or the account can be closed and a separate one opened on different terms. If you are overdrawn then the bank is unlikely to agree to close it, so you will need to agree about how it will be repaid.
The bank might freeze the account if you tell them you are separating or if either of you ask them to freeze the account. It can only be unfrozen with permission from you both. If possible, speak with your ex-partner about the accounts so that you can both access the money you need until new accounts are set up.
A joint credit card is actually one person’s card with an additional user who has been authorised by the account holder. You need to know which one of you is the holder and make arrangements accordingly. Again, like other banking-style arrangements it is something better dealt with by agreement between you and your ex-partner to avoid practical disruption as to how your finances operate.
If a credit card is in your name, then your ex-partner is an additional card holder, so you can unilaterally contact the credit card provider, but think about whether that could cause practical problems before you do that, as it is unlikely the card can be reinstated.
5. Preserving your assets
If you have any legal ownership of an asset then you may be able to obtain a court order to prevent your share of the value being lost.
If you are married or in a civil partnership, you can apply to the court for an order to prevent your partner from ‘alienating’ (parting with) any of their property or other assets, but if you were living together without a formal legal relationship, then only those assets that you claim ownership of can be subject to that kind of court order. If you have a share of a property under an agreement that is not registered at the Land Registry, then you may be able to prevent that being lost, but just because the person should provide for you or any children, that is unlikely to warrant a court interfering with property rights. Due process will need to be followed.
It is a complicated issue and needs the attention of a specialist family-law solicitor to help assess what is possible.
In most cases, a cost/benefit analysis needs to be carried out and if, for example the person has other assets that would be very difficult to get rid of, the expense of seeking a court order to prevent them spending a lesser sum or realising the value of an asset of less value may not be money well spent. In the case of people with a formal relationship like marriage or civil partnership ALL their assets can be used to meet needs, so providing the asset that might be ‘lost’ is not a significant proportion of the pool of assets, there may be little disadvantage in refraining from seeking an order.
Transactions that have taken place may be set aside in some circumstances and so it is something worth discussing with a specialist to assess the merits of taking action to prevent a disposal or what to do about a transaction that was carried out to frustrate a fair accounting of property/assets.
It is very important to speak to experts about the various issues on splitting up and separating and mistakes avoided at the outset will pave the way for an easier journey towards independence.