Like anyone who has been in this situation (or is thinking about it) knows, the decision to leave a marriage and even potentially break up a family is one of the hardest decisions you can ever make. We don’t choose to have children with someone with the intention of our family breaking down.

It feels scary and no one can tell you if separation is the right thing for your situation. You may not know this yourself but, if you are looking to leave an unhappy marriage, these steps will hopefully make the process as stress-free as possible for everyone involved.

1. Visit Centrelink

Do it on a day when you have nothing urgent on because it might take a while. You will need to fill in some paperwork and have all your personal details ready, especially income reports. You can do this online or in person.

The forms you need to fill out and hand over are either:

Separation detail form – This form lets Centrelink know you’ve separated.

Separated under one roof – If you and your spouse still live together at this stage, then you will fill this form out instead. Your partner needs to fill one out too which can be difficult if he’s not quite ready to accept the marriage is ending. If you can’t get him to fill one out, tell Centrelink and they will make arrangements.

Once the forms are filed, you will receive various payments from Centrelink depending on the age of your kids and your current income. These may include:

Single parenting payment – to assist with your day to day costs

Rent assistance – to help with rent

Health care concession – to reduce electricity costs, school fees and medical fees.

Even if you don’t work at all, you will be given enough to provide for your family. If you do work, the payment can supplement your income, up to a certain amount.

2. Sort out child support

Not everyone receives child support but while you’re at Centrelink, it’s a good idea to look into Child Support as well. You can do so at the Centrelink office.

There are a number of forms to fill out but after you’ve got everything set up, it can be pretty straightforward.

The Child Support agency can take over ensuring your ex-spouse pays the amount so you don’t have to worry about that. However, keep in mind that not all partners pay child support – it depends on income and custody. Again, this is all sorted through Centrelink.

3. Contact Legal Aid

Many of us worry about the cost of a lawyer and rightfully so. But you will need legal guidance, even if it’s just to look over the details. You can hire a family lawyer or you can contact Legal Aid in your state and have a lawyer assigned to you. This can be at a reduced fee or no cost depending on your situation.

Here are the numbers to call:

Australian Capital Territory – 1300 654 314

New South Wales – 1300 888 529

Queensland – 1300 651 188

Northern Territory – 1800 029 343

South Australia – 1300 366 424

Tasmania – 1300 366 611

Victoria – 1300 792 387

Western Australia- 1300 650 579

4. Look into rental options

It can be a bit tricky to find a place to live when you don’t have a steady income. But this is why Centrelink offers rent assistance. When applying for rental places, you will need to let them know how much you are receiving from Centrelink as this counts as your income.

There are also private rental companies that can help you find accommodation during this time.

5. Sort out the little details

As Centrelink starts to kick in and you become accustomed to the new routine, it’s time to sort out those little details. Here’s a few things you need to update:

Redirect your mail to the new address

Update your Medicare card, driver’s license, insurance and vehicle registration

Change/open new accounts for your credit cards and bank accounts

6. Decide on a custody plan

Remember, no matter what your situation, it’s what’s in the best interest of the children (if you have them) that matters.

To decide on a parenting plan/custody agreement/visitation rights you have three main options:

Without intervention – If you and your partner are able to come to an agreement without legal guidance, then go for it. But just be sure you have written proof of your agreement.

Mediation – If you want to avoid the fees involved with lawyers, then mediation is the way to go. This involves sitting down with a mediator and discussing all the ins and outs of the parenting plan, including drop off times, holiday plans, etc. It is much cheaper than using a lawyer but you will need to both agree to the consent orders which doesn’t always happen.

Legal assistance – If you and your partner can’t agree, you will need a lawyer to represent you. Hopefully your lawyer and his lawyer can sit down and come to an agreement. If not, it will go to court.

7. Split the assets

When splitting your assets, you will also need legal guidance, either through a lawyer or Legal Aid. The process will most likely be similar to the last bullet point above but hopefully you can come to an agreement without going to court.

How much each party receives depends on so many factors that it’s impossible to really give anyone a head’s up on what’s to come. Your lawyer will explain what you’re entitled to.

8. File for divorce

You will need to be officially separated for 12 months before you can file for divorce. During this time, you can still go ahead with all other divorce proceedings including custody and division of assets.

To file the divorce, you will need to go through the Family Law Court of Australia. If you and your spouse agree and have everything else sorted, the fee is $900 and the form is super straightforward. If you have a concession card, the fee is reduced to $300.

Moving on from separation

Yes, it is hard, but sometimes it’s better to walk away than stay in a toxic or unhappy situation. Even if it’s difficult to see that now.

Not all relationships work out, even if there are kids involved. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that you’ve broken up your family. It means you’ve made the decision to give your kids two happy households rather than one unhappy one.

In time, the new situation will become your normal, even if it isn’t what you ever expected, but it will get better.

Also check out the EAP Assist Divorce and Separation Program found here for further support and resources: