Victoria recognises the rights of de facto children

The Victorian Court of Appeal recognised earlier this month in the case of Scott-Mackenzie v Bail that stepchildren of a de facto couple have the same rights as of married couples for the purposes of Family Provision Applications. The effect of this case is significant (at least in Victoria, for now) as it overturns the common law principal that a stepchild/step-parent relationship is created and recognised only when the parties are married.

The case concerned a claim brought by a stepchild pursuant to Part IV of the Administration and Probate Act 1958 (Vic). Part IV of the Act allows an “eligible person” to bring a claim for provision (or further provision) from the estate of a deceased person. The definition of eligible person, contained in section 90 of the Act includes the following:

(c) a stepchild of the deceased who, at the time of the deceased’s death, was—

(i) under the age of 18 years; or
(ii) a full-time student aged between 18 years and 25 years; or
(iii) a stepchild with a disability;

In this case, the applicant’s mother was in a domestic relationship with the deceased for 40 years until the applicant’s mother died in 2001. Following the death of the applicant’s mother, the deceased commenced a domestic relationship with another woman and when he died, left his entire estate to her. The estate was worth just under $1 million.

The Court stated the following in relation to the word “stepchild”:

“In modern life, domestic partnerships are no longer uncommon. They have become considerably more common than they were, say, 30 years ago. Domestic partnerships can, and frequently do, have all of the appearances of partnerships that are marriages and have been recognised by the Parliament as a legitimate alternative to marriage. The fact that the word ‘stepchild’ came into existence at a time before domestic partnerships became more common explains why definitions have previously referred to either an original marriage and a subsequent marriage, or merely a subsequent marriage”.

It is important to note that the Court found the stepchild/ step-parent relationship of de facto couples is broken by separation of the couple, not by death of one of the partners. Therefore, if the deceased and the applicant’s mother had separated before her death, the stepchild/ step-parent relationship would have been broken.

It is important to note that this is a Victorian case and therefore, Victorian law. It is uncertain whether the ACT or NSW Supreme Courts will apply this case should a similar situation arise. In Queensland, section 40A of the Succession Act continues to refer to a stepchild/step-parent relationship as one arising only by way of marriage.

The takeaway from this case is that you may need to carefully consider children from a de facto partner when writing your Will or, if you are the child of such a relationship, to take considered advice in relation to any potential family provision claim.

To make sure that your will and estate plan takes care of your loved ones, please contact us.