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The rights of a domestic partnership

Domestic partnerships, also known as cohabitation relationships, are becoming more common in our modern day society, and it therefore becomes ever more important for parties to understand the different legal implications of being married and merely cohabiting. Parties to a domestic partnership do not enjoy the same legal protection as married couples upon termination of the partnership with regards to maintenance claims, property division or succession.

In the South African legal system, there are three forms of fully legally recognised unions, namely marriages, civil unions and customary marriages. However, in our modern society it is becoming more common for couples to live together in domestic partnerships, without ever getting married. It is important for parties to these partnerships to realise that little to no legal protection is provided upon the termination of such a relationship, either by agreement or due to the death of either party.

The general rule for domestic partnerships was laid down in Butters v Mncora: A domestic partnership does not give rise to any special legal consequences, such as that of a marriage or a civil union.

In 2006, the South African Law Reform Commission acknowledged the need for legal protection to be granted and drafted the “Draft Domestic Partnership Bill.” Parliament has however shown no urgency to pass the Draft Bill, and the legal position in South Africa thus remains unchanged.

Maintenance claims

The Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act entitles a surviving spouse of a marriage, and a surviving civil partner of a civil union, to institute a claim for maintenance against the estate of the deceased. This provides for a claim of any reasonable maintenance needs that they cannot provide for by their own means, until such time that they remarry or pass away.

Parties of a domestic partnership should note that this protection does not extend to domestic partnerships, and thus no such maintenance claim can be made. Should the Domestic Partnership Bill be enacted in the future, section 28 will offer such an opportunity to claim for maintenance. However, at this stage no such protection is afforded.

Property Division

Parties to a marriage have a choice of two matrimonial property regimes. Simply put this is to be married either in community of property, or out of community of property. Each property system will have different consequences flowing from it either by law or contractually due to an Antenuptial contract. However, no property regimes exist for domestic partnerships, and thus no joint estate can exist as it would in a marriage.

The Supreme Court of Appeal has recently portrayed an increased willingness to extend contract-based legal protection to parties of a domestic partnerships. Contracts can be concluded by parties in domestic partnerships to govern aspects such as division of property upon termination of the partnership. Although these types of contracts are legally enforceable, they may give rise to potential problems. The contract may be concluded solely for the benefit of one of the parties, or circumstances may occur that the parties had not anticipated when the contract was drawn up. In practice however, it seldom happens that parties to a domestic partnership actually enter into a contract.  This may be due to a mutual decision, or due to the fact that parties did not foresee a need for such contract.

Intestate Succession

In terms of the Intestate Succession Act, a spouse of a marriage will inherit if the deceased spouse dies without making a will. This has been extended to include partners of a civil union and customary marriage. Provision for inheritance by a partner of a permanent same-sex partnership has also been made in terms of this Act. This has however not been extended to the termination of heterosexual domestic partnerships, and thus no claim can be made in terms of the Intestate Succession Act on the estate of a deceased partner of a domestic partnership.

Couples living together in cohabitation relationships do not have similar rights to institute claims against the other party upon termination as they would have in a marriage or civil union. This could leave financially dependent parties in unanticipated vulnerable positions.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

Reference List:

  • Butters v Mncora 2012 (4) SA 1 (SCA).
  • Barratt A “Private contract or automatic court discretion? Current trends in legal regulation of permanent life-partnerships” (2015) 26 Stellenbosch Law Review 110-131.
  • Clark B “Families and domestic partnerships” (2002) 119 South African Law Journal 634-648.
  • Intestate Succession Act 81 of 1987.
  • Maintenance of Surviving Spouse Act 27 of 1990.
  • Skeleton A (ed) Family Law in South Africa (2010), Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
  • The Domestic Partnership bill in GG 30663 of 14-01-2008.