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I've been catfished.

Friday 6th of May 2022
By: James Ahearn, Solicitor and Victoria Kilby, Senior Associate - Coote Family Lawyers

Thank you so much for your help this year, I am thrilled to have this resolved.

My 'partner' is not who they said they were.  Do I have an entitlement for a property settlement under the Family Law Act 1975 (the Act)?

To enliven the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia and give rise to grounds for a claim to a property settlement following the breakdown of a relationship, the Court must be satisfied as to the existence of a de facto relationship in accordance with the definition in section 4AA of the Act.   

In the modern world of online dating and relationships, the term “catfishing” has been prevalent in media headlines recently due to a number of true-story podcasts and TV shows such as “Who the Hell is Hamish?”,Sweet Bobby”, and the Netflix series “Dirty John” and “Tinder Swindler”.  

Catfishing occurs when a perpetrator impersonates someone or pretends to be someone they are not, in order to deceive and entice the victim into a relationship with them.  Sometimes the perpetrator is known to the victim, hence the need to conceal their true identity.  Catfishing typically takes place online, through the use of fake profiles and images on dating and social media platforms.  When fake images are used, the parties rarely meet in person and the relationship often remains online, though it may nonetheless continue for years, with one party believing they are in a genuine relationship during this time.   

In these cases, it can prove a challenge when seeking to establish a de facto relationship within the definition of the Act, particularly when the parties have not actually met.   In many cases of catfishing however, the perpetrator tries to obtain a financial benefit from the victim, for example, they persuade the victim to send them money, sometimes inventing a hypothetical “emergency” scenario, where they desperately need funds and promise to repay the money – which rarely happens.  In those circumstances, if it can be proved that the parties were in a genuine de facto relationship (albeit never meeting in person) and a significant financial contribution has been made in the form of a cash payment, the Court may have jurisdiction.   

Generally speaking, a claim to a property settlement arises after parties have been living together on a genuine domestic basis for at least 2 years, or there is a child of the relationship, or one of the parties has made a significant contribution of some form.  There are a myriad of other factors to be considered when determining whether the relationship meets the criteria to fall within the definition under the Act, including but not limited to the length of the relationship, whether it was sexual in nature, financial dependency, a mutual commitment to a shared life, registration of the relationship in Australia or abroad, property ownership, care and support of children and the public aspects of the relationship such as perception and reputation.

Whether you and your partner are deemed to be in a de facto relationship will depend on the specific circumstances of your situation.  If you have questions about your relationship, please contact a member of our practice support team to speak with one of our top family lawyers about your relationship.

Presently, there is no law against catfishing per se in Australia.  If you believe your partner has engaged in fraudulent deception to obtain financial gain from you however, you may have grounds for a criminal claim and should speak with a criminal lawyer.

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