In response to the Herald’s investigation into what some describe as New Zealand’s “broken” system of resolving relationship property disputes, readers contacted us with their heartbreaking stories of grappling with shock revelations after a divorce or breakup. Jane Phare reports.
Their voices over the phone betray the emotion behind the stories. They want to talk, to let others know what it’s like. A warning. They are, or have been, embroiled in multi-year legal battles over who gets what and/or the custody of kids. They’re exhausted, sick of it, and they know the people around them are sick of it too.
“No one cares. Hell, my family doesn’t even care any more, they’re so over it,” one tells me.
Their emails had arrived in a steady stream after the Herald’s recent series on New Zealand’s deeply flawed system of dealing with high-conflict relationship property and custody disputes. It is a system dogged by an outdated Property (Relationships) Act 1976 and a Family Court that is disorganised and overworked at best, dysfunctional and “brutal” at its worst.
The point most of those spoken to want to make is that the trauma of their past relationships was bad enough, but finding themselves at the mercy of the Family Court and the legal system is almost worse.
One woman, now free of a long-term abusive relationship, says: “Dealing with the Family Court for the past 18 months, my God it’s like being abused all over again. It’s awful.”
They want others to know how “hideous” it can get. You must keep writing about this, they say. They’re frustrated that they can’t talk openly because of restrictions on Family Court reporting. And if they settle matters in private mediation, they must sign a confidentiality agreement. So they want the Herald to be their voice, to tell their stories.
They recount the history of the past five, six, seven years of hell in a matter-of-fact manner. But it’s not long before their voices falter and they apologise for getting upset.
“I wanted to sound businesslike,” one said as she broke down. How could she, reliving the Family Court nightmare in which she is trapped? Once, back in her marriage years, she was trapped as a “sex slave,” sex that was forced on her in order to keep the peace, to stop him getting angry.
He undermined her confidence, she says, wore her down, introduced MDMA/ecstasy to spice up their sex life after accusing her of a lagging libido. In the end it was easier to go along with it or the kids would “cop it”.
“I still can’t believe it. I’m such a normal person. All your good intentions get violated. It was about living out his sexual fantasies.”
Now she’s found herself in another trap, stuck in a seemingly endless dispute between her ex and the Family Court over the custody and protection of her children. She’s had to “jump through hoops”to repeatedly prove her innocence against her former husband’s allegations.
“It’s humiliating, utterly humiliating.”
Tours were for sex, not temples
And then there is *Joan, a well-spoken woman who talked about her career, her two “lovely boys”, and her 20-year marriage to a professional. They loved to travel, show the children faraway places. Sight-seeing, camel rides, tours of temples, that sort of thing.
And then it all fell apart. The marriage didn’t drift to an end, it imploded after Joan discovered “this person” had been living a double life that revolved around sex. There were multiple affairs, flying lovers on trips in business class when Joan thought he was away at a conference.
But discovery of the affairs was just the beginning. With the help of private investigators, forensic accountants and documents acquired under discovery, Joan was able to peel back layers of deceit and betrayal. The documents showed her former husband had spent an estimated $250,000 on sex tours, brothel visits and prostitutes during their marriage.
She talks of a family sight-seeing tour overseas with old friends. He wanted to go on a walk instead but, years later, the American Express receipts told a different story: a sex tour pre-booked before the family left New Zealand. Her former husband, she says, could
write an international guide on brothels around the world.
“It was hiding in plain sight. Nobody saw it. It’s actually quite chilling.”
The discoveries left her gutted. Not only was she fighting a high-conflict relationship property dispute but she had to readjust everything she had believed about her marriage.
“I couldn’t imagine all of these things he had been doing. It was so excessive it was actually hard to believe. Your brain re-calibrates every single part of your relationship. It’s so traumatic when I have to go back through it.”
Seven years later you can hear the distaste in her voice. Joan needed to get away, distance herself from the pain, make a new start.
But she can’t. She’s stuck, like so many others who contacted the Herald, in a process that began in the Family Court and is still part of her nightmare.
Her relationship property saga has a familiar ring. It’s taken years to get matters to court, discovery is painfully slow, nothing is resolved. She’s still paying off the $120,000 taken by her ex spouse from a flexible finance facility on the family home after they separated, leaving her with both a mortgage and the extra debt. And money gone from a joint business account.
At the time, Joan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and the ongoing legal battles over settlement means the trauma is never far away. When her lawyers ask her to dig out information from the past she often has to steel herself for 24 hours before looking.
Now she wants to know why there are no consequences for perjury or theft when there is proof someone has lied in court. Why can’t someone be charged under the Crimes Act 1961, theft by spouse or partner?Why will no-one listen?
Joan isn’t alone is struggling to come to terms with sordid secrets while trying to settle relationship property. Others spoke of finding shocking pornography on the home office computer when they were looking for financial records.
One found pornographic images that were so horrible she couldn’t reconcile them with the man she had shared a home with for nine years.
They were not all women who emailed. There were men with their own stories – one dragged through a ludicrous relationship property dispute for 11 years by a vexatious ex wife until the legal bills were more than the small amount left to fight over. His life was on hold for all those years and it began to affect his second relationship.
Another, struggling to make sure his children were safe with an alcoholic ex wife for the past five years, outlined what he described as repeated failures by the system – “the courts, police, Oranga Tamariki, lawyers, professional supervisors, rehab clinics and their staff and psychologists”. He described the Family Court system as “completely dysfunctional and Kafkaesque”.
Having spent $100,000 a year on legal fees, he put his business on hold and went on a sole parent benefit so he could qualify for legal aid and care for his children.
“The whole system is a joke,” he wrote.
Another man called Family Court judges “malicious and lawless”, who at times acted outside their judicial powers and made decisions that were free from scrutiny and difficult to challenge.
Aarti Prasad, a second-year adult law student and an ethnic women’s advocate, wrote to say he was of Indian origin and had witnessed how often men made the decisions regarding money. “There have been cases that men have under false pretences got their wives to sign over their share in the family home to them. Often these women don’t know what their rights are.”
Women who have little or no knowledge of the family finances, or what property or companies are in the matrimonial pool, is something Auckland divorce coach Bridgette Jackson sees regularly. Sixty-five per cent of her clients are women and of those, 80 per cent lack financial literacy, she says.
Jackson, a mother of four children, spent five years in a high-conflict relationship property battle that cost her $500,000. Her father lent her $250,000 and then she got an interim settlement as the result of the sale of the house.
“But that’s not usual. Not many people have got a father who can lend quarter of a million dollars. There a lot of women who are not in that position.”
Jackson wants to see the system changed so the court can allocate an early interim distribution of funds for both sides to seek legal advice, or pay for court proceedings or private mediation.
“They need to get access to money equally at the beginning of the process. There are women who are in situations that are absolutely horrendous, having to resort to places like Women’s Refuge.”
She knows women who have left the family home in distress only to find the locks and alarm code changed, and access to money cut off. Nowhere to live and no way to fight.
Jackson, like others who have been through unnecessarily protracted legal battles, wants the Government to move more quickly to fix a system many describe as “broken” and “brutal”. Official reviews of the Property (Relationships) Act and the Family Court described both as no longer fit for purpose.
“It’s absolutely devastating for so many people and children are often in the middle of it.”
She’d eventually like to set up a charity to help men and women fund high-conflict cases, and to provide free divorce coaching. And, in partnership with financial advisers Cambridge Partners, she’s about to launch a financial capability programme.
“People, whether they’re together or divorced, need to know what they own. You need to have these conversations up front if you’re in a relationship you think might get serious.”
Mother-of-two *Wendy agrees.
Her 10-year relationship ended six years ago and she later found herself removed from the family home, not realising the property had been put into her former partner’s family trust. Her ex applied for the right to live in the home and full custody of the children.
“Because he got the house he also got full custody of my kids because I was removed from the house. The court made me homeless. They knew I had nowhere to go.”
She warns anyone planning to live together to have a relationship property agreement from the start, and agree to when the living-together relationship started. In Wendy’s case, one judge agreed that date was when she moved in with her partner. On appeal, the next judge sided with the former partner, saying the beginning of the relationship was later.
By that time, the house had been transferred into his family trust. Wendy sold her own home and put that money into the family home not realising the property was in a trust.
“Trusts should never be used to stop the other person from accessing their property.”
Without an official tenancy agreement, the Family Court would not allow her children tostay with her when she was living with friends. In the past few years Wendy estimates she’s appeared at least 15 times in the Family and High Courts fighting for equal custody of her children and relationship property.
“As soon as decisions come out he [her former partner] appeals them.”
Joan thinks there are other issues women battle with apart from inequitable finances. She talks about coming up against the “bloke” network.
“For me it’s also the patriarchy. All the private bankers are blokes, they go to the rugby together. This is a club and they protect their own. Until society changes it is still a patriarchal judicial system in my view. I haven’t struck a female judge in the six years.”
She feels the banks sided with her husband and were uncooperative over discovery to access bank statements.
“Most of the banks just told me to get lost. I felt they absolutely protected him [her former husband]. He walked away from $1.2 million in debt and now he’s got new loans from the banks. “
Since then she’s been knocking on doors: the Companies Office, the Serious Fraud Office, the professional organisation to which her former husband is affiliated. No-one was interested, she says.
“I’ve been told to lay criminal charges. Who would, after six years of this? Even though I’ve been spending all this money with lawyers, there is no consequences for this person.”
Now in her 60s, she faces walking away with nothing.
“Deception and infidelity is one thing, but when you are channelling vast amounts of money that is company money and company trust money into a sex addiction that’s quite another.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
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