Abandoned unexpectedly? A survival guide for the suddenly single parent
Grace Lawson| Barrister and Mediator | 01 October 2014
Separation is distressing for both parents, and particularly for the children. Some separations are amicable and not unexpected. Parents may have discussed the possibility of separation and have planned for it. They may have secured their own accommodation and employment, and agreed on the division of assets and the care arrangements of the children.
Many separations, however, are unexpected and unplanned. One parent may suddenly move out of the family home leaving the other with no income and the responsibility to meet all the expenses that they previously met together. In many cases it is the breadwinner who decides to move out. The remaining parent is then left in the family home with the responsibility to meet all of the children’s needs.
Statistics show that 87% of one-parent families with children under 15 years were headed by mothers.
If you suddenly become a single parent there are steps that can be taken to minimise the stress that you and the children experience. These steps include developing a strong support network, and considering counselling services, financial assistance, and legal advice.
Children come first
Although a sudden separation will be distressing to you, it is crucial that you consider the wellbeing of the children first. Children lack the maturity and life experience to deal with the stress and trauma of a separation. Reassurance that “everything will be fine” is sometimes all children need to hear. Be wary though that these words are backed up with consistent action. Therefore, consider the following:
- How and when you will tell the children that their parent has moved out, and whether you will have a close family member or friend present to assist in reassuring the children. Choose an appropriate time and setting. Children can sense fear and stress in your tone of voice so think about the words and tone you will use. Although this may be extremely difficult, try to control your emotions.
- Avoid criticising the other parent in the presence of the children, and if you are ‘getting things off your chest’ to a friend, be careful that the children are not within hearing distance. Children are very easily influenced and derogatory remarks about the other parent may affect their relationship with them in the future. It may also be used against you in the family courts.
- Contact the school and notify the teachers that the children are going through a difficult time and may need additional support. The school counsellor may be able to offer further assistance.
- Consider counselling services for the children if they are not coping with the separation. The experts in this area will give you a variety of coping mechanisms to adopt for the children.
Consider your emotional state
Once you address the immediate needs of the children, consider your own needs. Contact your closest friends and family members and ask for assistance. This may include babysitting while you go to work or attend appointments, financial assistance, or just a listening ear. A support network will ease your anxiety and help you through this difficult time. Once you get over the initial shock and distress, if you are not coping emotionally, seek professional help. As with the children, experts have a range of coping mechanisms that may assist you in rebuilding your confidence and your life.
Address your financial position
With some time passing after the initial separation you may have a better understanding of your financial position and needs. The other parent may have made contact with you and offered financial assistance in the form of spousal maintenance or child support. You may have discussed the division of assets, change of names on leases or utility accounts, and signing over properties or mortgages. If, however, you have not had contact with the other parent, consider the following:
- Contact the Department of Human Services immediately. You will be advised of which type of Centrelink payments you qualify for. Ask about family payments, emergency payments, and rent assistance. The Department will also take necessary steps to calculate and collect child support payments from the other parent.
- If you have superannuation you may qualify for an early release of your funds on the grounds of severe financial hardship, or on compassionate grounds.
- If you cannot afford the rent on the property you live in you may be eligible for more affordable housing through the National Rental Affordability Scheme. If you do not qualify or cannot afford rental housing consider moving in with family until you get back up on your feet. Although this may not be your preferred option, it will provide you and your children with at least temporary stability.
- If you cannot afford the mortgage on the home in which you live, contact the financial institution. It may offer you a different mortgage structure. Alternatively, consider accessing your superannuation funds on the ground of needing mortgage assistance.
- You may have bills piling up, including utility and credit card bills. Contact each institution. You may be able to arrange instalment payments on all of the outstanding bills, and make the minimum payments on the credit cards.
- If you are employed, speak with your employer in confidence and enquire whether you may be able to access your long service leave or other accrued leave entitlements.
Are any legal avenues necessary for you?
It may be prudent for you to seek legal advice in relation to the children and financial issues. If you have not heard from the other parent and have concerns about your and the children’s safety, consider changing the locks to the family home. If you were subjected to domestic violence, speak with the Police and consider making an Application for Protection Order (commonly referred to as restraining order). Legal advice, let alone legal representation, can be costly. A suburban solicitor will charge anywhere from $200 to $300 per hour. A solicitor in the CBD will charge anywhere from $300 to $500 per hour. These will be exorbitant fees for a single parent who can barely pay for rent and feed the children. However, there are a number of services which provide free legal advice. Consider contacting the following:
|Women’s Legal Service 1800 677 278||Women’s Legal Service 1800 801 501||Women’s Legal Service 1800 133 302||Women’s Legal Centre 1800 634 669||Women’s Legal Service 1800 816 349||Women’s Legal Service 1800 682 468||Women’s Law Centre 1800 625 122||Top End Women’s Legal Service 1800 234 441|
|Caxton Legal Centre (07) 3214 6333||Community Legal Centre of NSW (02) 9212 7333||Federation of Community Legal Centres Vic (03) 9652 1500||SA Community Legal Centres (08) 8342 1800||Hobart Community Legal Service (03) 6223 2500||Community Legal Centres Association of WA (08) 9221 9322||Central Australian Women’s Legal Service 1800 684 055|
|Legal Aid Queensland 1300 651 188||Law Access NSW 1300 888 529||Vic Legal Aid 1300 792 387||Legal Aid ACT 1300 654 314||Legal Services Commission of SA 1300 366 424||Legal Aid Commission of Tasmania 1300 366 611||Legal Aid WA 1300 650 579||NT Legal Aid Commission 1800 019 343|
|Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (07) 3846 6317||National Association of Community Legal Centres (02) 9264 9595||Launceston Community Legal Centre 1800 066 019||Darwin Community Legal Service 1800 812 953|
You may also contact the National Association of Community Legal Centres on (02) 9264 9595 from any State or Territory within Australia. If you prefer to see a private solicitor, contact the Queensland Law Society for a referral of the right solicitor for you. Before you make any applications to the family courts, whether in relation to children or property issues, consider if you can reach an agreement with the other parent through mediation. See, for example, Relationships Australia and the counselling and mediation services they offer. If you find yourself in a position where the other parent has made the application, it will be necessary for you to seek legal advice. Likewise, if you cannot reach agreement, then it may be necessary for you to make the application to court.
Light at the end of the tunnel
A separation, particularly where it was unexpected, is traumatic for the abandoned mother or father and for the children. It may take a suddenly abandoned parent many months to recover emotionally and financially. However, with a focus on the best interests of the children, a strong support network, counselling and legal advice, the single parent can get back on their feet and rebuild their life. There are numerous services available for a single parent, and especially one that is struggling emotionally and financially. The departments and services listed in this article, for example, will be able to provide immediate assistance, or if necessary, refer to another appropriate department or service. Patience will be necessary when dealing with these departments and services. Many are staffed by volunteers and there may be a waiting time for an available appointment. However, perseverance and a positive attitude will help when dealing with the various departments. Finally, draw on the experiences of your friends or colleagues. Single parents who have experienced being suddenly abandoned may share what helped them succeed. Focusing on successful single families and utilising all available resources will help you, in time, to also succeed at being a single parent.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/F4B15709EC89CB1ECA25732C002079B2?opendocument#DEMOGRAPHIC%20CHARACTERISTICS, accessed 22 September 2014.