The provision of home-based palliative care requires a substantial unpaid contribution from family and friends (i.e. informal care). The present cross-sectional descriptive study, conducted between September 2003 and April 2004, describes this contribution and the impact it has on those providing informal care. The participants were 82 informal carers of patients registered with two community palliative care services in Sydney, Australia (40% of eligible carers). Carers were interviewed to assess the care recipient's care needs, the care provided by the informal carer and the health status of the carer (using the 36-Item Short Form Health Survey). A number of open-ended questions asked about the impact of providing care and the type of support that carers would find helpful. Most carers reported that care recipients required help with household tasks and many needed assistance with personal activities of daily living, taking medications and organisational tasks. In the majority of cases, the principal carer provided all or most of this help. Although, on average, the physical health of carers was similar to that of the Australian population, their mental health scores were lower. Many carers reported effects on social and family relationships, restrictions on their participation in work and leisure activities, and a range of emotional reactions to their caring situation. The support carers said they would like included information and advice, in-home respite, help with household tasks, and financial support. The present study supports the view that effective support for carers must recognise the pre-existing relationship between carer and recipient, and the differing needs of individual carers.