Woman’s costly settlement

2008-09-05 00:00

A Pietermaritzburg woman who devoted almost 11 years to a common-law relationship unprotected by any legal contract had to fight for a just financial settlement, but her “victory” has cost her and her former partner dearly.

The Pietermaritzburg mother of two, Barbara Grobbler, won a financial settlement from her former partner, Peter Summers, after a three-year battle in the Pietermaritzburg High Court that went “right down to the wire”.

In the process of trying to get what she believed to be a “fair deal” from the man she “felt married to”, Grobbler has been left jobless and homeless.

She said even though she won a substantial settlement with costs, she is nonetheless worse off today than when she started living with Summers in 1995.

And despite his decision to eventually settle out of court because it was “clear from the attitude of the judge that I was going to lose”, Summers maintained this week that he is the one who has been wronged.

“Before I met her [Grobbler] 14 years ago I had a house. Now I’ve been left with not even half a house,” he said.

“I had the right to defend myself and that’s all I did,” Summers said.

“Do you think that if someone moves into your home with her children and pays the lights and water, that should entitle her to half your estate?”

Grobbler told Weekend Witness she was forced to resign from her job to pay legal costs won by Summers — and lost her home when he obtained an order evicting her and her son from the home they had shared for almost 11 years.

Grobbler says when the relationship broke down in 2005, Summers and his lawyers disputed her right to any financial benefits they accrued together.

She had no marriage contract to fall back on. Bitter legal wrangling ensued, and she was “thrown out with nothing”.

Grobbler’s attorney, Kate Crouch, said people who decide to live with their partners should protect themselves legally by having a lawyer draw up a cohabitation agreement. This applies equally to men and women. Such an agreement would spell out in writing who is entitled to what in the event of the relationship breaking down.

“Unfortunately Judge Jan Combrink was not called on to deliver a judgment in this case, which would have set a legal precedent,”she said.

The action was eventually settled with Summers agreeing to pay Grobbler more than she asked for when they split up, as well as “substantial” legal costs.

But no one other than the lawyers has gained anything, said Grobbler.

She told Weekend Witness she hopes by publicising the case to help others avoid similar mistakes.

Grobbler’s claim for a financial settlement was based on the fact that the couple — when they moved in together in December 1995 — entered into a partnership agreement to share equally in their present and future property and other possessions.

According to the court papers, the couple lived as common-law spouses “as if in a marriage relationship with a joint household”.

Grobbler is said to have contributed “substantial services and labour” as well as to the contents and maintenance of the joint household. She also contributed financially to their living costs in her role as “housewife”.

Summers paid the bonds and property rates on their homes.

“We have both been destroyed financially by the legal process. I am worse off now — in spite of winning a settlement — than when I entered into this relationship.

“I have lost my home, job, medical aid, pension and no longer even have a car. I have survived living with friends, and being supported by family and friends.

“This is a difficult situation for an independent person to be in,” said Grobbler.

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