There have arguably been many consequences of the evolution of divorce case law since the turn of the century.
Since a notable ruling in favour of Somerset farmer’s wife Pamela White in 2000, the details of collapsed marriages involving individuals who aren’t celebrities seem more interesting to media.
In addition, the way in which couples structure – or separate – their relationships has been informed by the practices in other, more notable cases.
For instance, prenuptial agreements have acquired more weight and proven considerably more popular following the 2010 Supreme Court decision to honour the document signed by German heiress Katrin Radmacher and her ex-husband.
An eye-catching but no less important development has been the way in which the concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘need’ have been reinforced as critical in courts’ thinking about how assets are divided when husbands and wives part.
Headlines were generated by one case last week, in which a former model, Christina Estrada, was awarded a £75 million settlement from her billionaire former spouse. It has been described as the largest “needs award” ever made by an English divorce court. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/08/former-pirelli-calendar-model-awarded-75m-in-largest-divorce-set/).
A second, anonymised decision, coincidentally handed down by the same judge, Mrs Justice Roberts, in the High Court’s Family Division only 48 hours before Ms Estrada’s, also underlined the importance of need (http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed161708).
Perhaps more importantly, it touched on how assets built up before a couple marry might be used to arrive at a settlement which is felt to be in the best interests of both.
The matter involved a businessman who married his wife in 2000 when he was in his late sixties and she was 51. She was divorced while he was a widower, having lost his first wife after 28 years of marriage.
Over the years, he had run nursing homes and bought a string of properties in central London. By the time that the couple decided to divorce, the couple were together worth just over £10 million.
She argued that she was entitled to a half-share of the overall joint pot, whereas he rejected that assertion, further claiming that she had “duped” him into marrying her, so that she might have a measure of “personal and financial security”.
As it turned out, the judge reckoned that it was fair that he kept 75 per cent of the overall assets with the remainder being, in part, recognition of the contribution which she had made to their marriage and his business.
In trying to effect a fair solution, the court decided to rely on some of the assets which the husband had amassed before their marriage.
Some people entertain an assumption that such possessions are beyond the scope of a divorce settlement – that anything owned before a couple ties the knot is not up for discussion.
That is, of course, not totally the case. As the judge made clear, the issue at the heart of the matter was that of the wife’s needs and not using pre-marital assets to generate a sum required to meet those needs would be unfair.
The husband’s argument is, in my experience, not unusual. However, the outcome in this case bears out what divorce courts generally regard as something of a fundamental rule: the needs of a less wealthy divorcing spouse trump all.
In the decade and a half since this couple married, prenuptial agreements have grown in frequency. They help establish who brings what to the marriage and provide a simple structure for asset division and one which, I believe, helps reduce the potential for debate or disagreement when bringing a marriage to a close.
As the couple in this case have discovered, arguing that someone is a dupe is both an emotional and factual exercise. Divorce – and the meeting of needs within it – comes down to rather more objective administration.
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