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Stanford v Stanford [2012] HCA 52

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

French CJ, Hayne, Heydon, Kiefel and Bell JJ

Family Law - setting aside orders altering property interests - interpretation of just and equitable and spousal maintenance provisions

Facts; The case of Stanford v Stanford [2012] HCA 52 is an interesting Family Law case that concerns the division of property under s 79 (2) of the Family Law Act (FLA). The Stanford family maintained a marital relationship for many years, with separate wills for children from their previous marriages. However, the husband and wife began to live apart shortly after the wife suffered a stroke and later developed dementia, which required full-time care. The wife applied for the property orders concerning the property they mutually owned.

In August 2009, the wife assigned her daughter as case guardian, who applied on her behalf to the Family Court of Western Australia for orders concerning selling the marital home and a request for the division of the net proceeds. Furthermore, the order also specified an equal division of the husband's superannuation entitlements and the parties' combined savings. The Magistrates Court of Western Australia heard the order, and at first instance, the Magistrate ruled that the overall percentage based on contributions should be 57.5% to [the husband] and 42.5% to [the wife]". The Magistrate ordered the husband to pay his wife $612,931 within 60 days.

The husband appealed to the Full Court of the Family Court of Australia, which concluded that the Magistrate erred in arriving at that decision. The Full Court also stated that it was "difficult to ascertain why the Magistrate arrived at the previous conclusion given the wife did not need a property settlement as such and that her reasonable needs could be met in other ways, particularly by maintenance" [emphasis added].

However, before finalising those orders, the wife died. The question at law was whether the Court could conclude the property orders given her death and the 'just and equitable' requirement under s 79.

Law; Heydon J stated that There are two main reasons why it would not have been just and equitable to have made an order concerning property if the wife had not died. The first reason is that the wife's needs were satisfied when the case arose before Court. When the application commenced, the initial provision of a capital sum for the wife would be "necessary or useful in securing suitable accommodation for her in an aged care facility." After her subsequent death and the deliverance of the judgment- this was no longer the case. [Paraphrased]

The second reason is that " our view, there are many aspects of this application which do not require an immediate order finally altering the interests of the parties in their property and particularly so where it would require the husband to leave his home of 48 years in which he is still residing."

The legal personal representatives of the wife argued that it was just

and equitable for the Magistrate to have made her order. That was because the legal entitlements of the parties did not reflect their contributions to the marriage. That factor might be relevant, even decisive, in [the] circumstances different from this case as they stood during the hearings while the wife was alive. But it was not sufficient to render it just and equitable to make the order when it was made.

Holding; The appeal to the High Court of Australia (HCA) should be allowed with costs. The orders made by the Full Court on 21 October 2011, which allowed the husband's appeal to the Court and set aside the property settlement order made at first instance, should be varied by adding an order dismissing the application for a property settlement order made on the wife's behalf and continued by her legal personal representatives.

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