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Family law reform bid over unmarried couples

Social Democratic (SPÖ) Minister for Women Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek has revealed plans of a significant family law reform.

The minister told magazine profil she wanted to change current regulations to help unmarried couples. Heinisch-Hosek said Austrian law should feature regulations considering how assets are shared if people break up. She added unmarried adults should have the right to obtain information on their partners’ condition if they are hospitalised. Medics are currently not obliged to disclose such information to people who are living together but are not married. Austrian family law means unmarried people have no general right to inherit their deceased partner’s possessions. It fails to feature a regulation regarding pensions too.

Heinisch-Hosek said People’s Party (ÖVP) Justice Minister Beatrix Karl reacted "reluctant but not opposing. I consider this in a positive way." The minister added she would appreciate if the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition managed to agree on a reform of federal family law in the current legislative period. The next general ballot is scheduled to take place in 2013. It has to be seen whether liberal forces within the ÖVP will have the last say within the conservative party. Analysts doubt that the ÖVP will accept any changes to family law as it is in force at the moment – despite a steady increase of out of marriage partnerships.

Statistik Austria said there were 333,000 non-marriage partnerships in Austria last year, up sharply from 1995 (169,000) and 2000 (213,000). Around 44 per cent of people choosing this form of a relationship had kids, four per cent more than in 1995. At the same time, the number of married relationships declined from 1.768 million in 1995 to 1.762 million in 2000 and 1.706 million last year. Around one in three marriages in Austria are currently divorced. Vienna and some other large cities even have a divorce rate of around 50 per cent.

Asked why new regulations were needed in her opinion, Heinisch-Hosek told profil: "Protection in case of split-ups matters a lot to me. I would not press on with my suggestion if we lived in a world in which everything is shared equally. But I am in support of the weak – who are female to a share of 90 per cent in this concern."

The married minister for women admitted she was aware that her proposals will create "a lot to discuss" with and within the ÖVP. She added: "I will need partners in my endeavour. That’s why I will contact non-government organisations (NGOs), the autonomic and the Catholic women’s movement. (…) Family as an institution matters a lot to the ÖVP, but I hope the party will realise that there are many people living in other forms of relationships – and that they are able to look after their children too."

Heinisch-Hosek stressed that the current family law was established and introduced in 1811 and 1938. She said it had to be "freed from dust."

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