Lawyer, Andrew Meiliunas, has seen a number of migrant brides forced out of their home after the death of their Australian husband. He explains what they can do to help avoid this situation.
A few years ago, Lin* travelled from her native China to Australia for a brief holiday. While in Melbourne, she met someone. He was more than 20 years older, Australian and didn’t speak a word of Chinese, but with her limited English they developed a relationship. Within five months, they were married and living together in regional Victoria.
Lin described their relationship as a happy one. They did everything together, including gardening, eating out and visiting friends. She also took on domestic duties including cleaning and cooking. Lin’s husband had two adult children from a previous marriage, who she said never visited their dad.
When her husband died after less than two years of marriage, she discovered the will he left behind had divided his estate between herself, his children and grandchildren. By splitting up his assets in this way, it meant their matrimonial home had to be sold, which effectively left her homeless and without enough money to secure a new home.
Around the same time, Rosa* found herself in a similar situation. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Melbourne after she married an Australian man who she had met online. He was 20 years older with three adult children from a previous marriage.
Like Lin, she looked after the domestic tasks. She also cared for her husband when he was diagnosed with the cancer that took his life. It later emerged that in the months before his death, he had transferred the title of the house they lived in over to two of his children. Rosa has since received letters from the children’s lawyer, demanding she leave the house - her matrimonial home for nearly 10 years.
Unfortunately, Lin and Rosa are not alone in their experiences. In recent years, I’ve seen a number of these cases where so-called ‘migrant brides’ have been forced out of their home and left in financial hardship after the death of their Australian husband.
There are some common themes to these cases. They usually involve women from Asia marrying Australian men who are substantially older, with adult children from a previous marriage.
In many cases, like Lin’s, the children have had little to do with their father for many years, and been happy to leave the primary care of their father to his new wife.
These migrant wives take on the bulk of home duties, including cooking, cleaning, and caring. Without their contribution, it is likely some of the men would have had to sell their home and move into an aged care facility.
But for whatever reason, whether intentional or otherwise, these men in preparing their will have failed to properly provide for their spouse, often leaving the bulk of the estate to children from a previous marriage.
This places the women in an extremely vulnerable situation. At the same time they are grieving the loss of their husband, they are faced with the stress of potentially losing their home and the prospect of an insecure financial future.
Their English can be limited, and these women have few support networks in Australia. Too often, they aren’t aware of their legal rights or are too afraid to speak up to claim these rights.
If they are forced to leave their home, they face huge problems entering the rental market, as they often have no employment history, credit rating or rental history.
A father has a moral and legal responsibility to provide adequately for his children after his death – but this should not come at the cost of supporting his wife.
Proper estate planning can help with the balancing act between the rights of the spouse and any children from a previous relationship.
It’s also important that these migrant women understand they have certain rights when it comes to being married.
Both Lin and Rosa sought advice about their rights, and we were able to help them achieve some financial stability to secure a private rental.
Ensuring more financial and legal literacy programs are available for women in different languages is an important step.
Open communication is also crucial. If you’re married, it’s a fair question to ask what is in your spouse’s will, or for your name to be added to the title of the house.
With the ageing population in Australia and the recent growth in internet dating, it’s likely there may be many more ‘migrant brides’ in similar situations in the years to come.
We need greater education, awareness and communication around the rights and obligations of spouses to ensure these women aren’t left on the brink of poverty while they are learning to survive on their own.
Andrew Meiliunas is a senior associate in the wills and estates practice at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.
*Not her real name