divorce uk marriage law
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A lawyer gets married to a lawyer. Once they divorce, one of them gets half the assets plus £400,000 extra for no longer being a lawyer.

More seriously: There was a recent example in case law judged by Mr Justice Philip sMoor, in which a couple met at a firm. She was an in-house lawyer by the time they were engaged, and was considered to have ‘a good chance’ of eventually becoming a partner at the law firm. The husband did not wish for her to remain at the firm when they married, and she accepted this outcome.

They first met in September 1999, when he was an associate solicitor and she was a trainee. She became an associate in March 2001, and their relationship initiated by 2002, and soon after the husband was made an equity partner. She was promoted to managing associate in 2006, and moved away from the office to work at a bank as an in-house lawyer in 2007. They married in 2008.

Since then they had been married for a decade with two children.

Justice Moor stated that while it was “unusual to find significant relationship generated disadvantage that may lead to a claim for compensation,” but this was such a case in which “the wife gave up her legal career, with the support of the husband.”

He added “He was somewhat ungallant as to the wife’s abilities, telling me that he did not think she was an exceptional candidate despite her two exceptional grades in her 2006 and 2007 appraisals. He has clearly convinced himself that her frailties mean she would never have been made a partner at the firm.”

The wife agreed that “compromises had to be made” when they got married, and she agreed to “put her career to one side for the children”. She considered herself “incredibly driven” and “it was very difficult for her to leave the firm”, not wanting to give up “her financial security or the ‘badge of honour’” she noted in the evidence that the husband “did not make her give up her career” – it was all by her own volition.

I am satisfied that, by the time the decision was taken to leave, she had formulated her plan which involved both marriage and, hopefully, children. She viewed herself as the parent who would take primary responsibility for the children. The husband’s career took precedence,” Justice Moore said in the judgement.

Mr. Justice Moor noted that this should not be a case that opens the way for other relationship-generated disadvantage claims.

He said: “I have already made the point that, in many of these cases, the assets will be such that any loss is already covered by the applicant’s sharing claim. In other cases, the assets/income will be insufficient to justify such a claim in the first place. It follows that litigants should think long and hard before launching a claim for relationship-generated disadvantage and they should not take this judgment as any sort of “green light” to do so unless the circumstances are truly exceptional.”

 

The Concept of Redress in UK Law

The obvious answer to the question in the title is: No, of course not.

When during a marriage one partner must take a step back to put family ahead of ambition and earning power, this is usually reflected in the division of assets and maintenance. While one may find material success in their career, the less tangible support offered by the other partner in emotional and mental needs should not be discounted either. Would the breadwinner have gone so far if they did not have their family to allow them to set down their burdens and/or prevent burnout? Taking care of children and one’s home used to be a full-time activity and being a mother remains a career in itself worthy of respect.

The concept of redress is to give compensation or payment for a wrong that has been done. Not usually is marriage considered a ‘wrong’ done to somebody. Relationship-generated disadvantage is already often compensated for, and any additional claims are usually awarded only for sake of child maintenance or when the relationship has things involved that are more abusive or criminal in nature.

Where compensation does look similar comes from the nature of damages awarded in personal injuries – the claims cover not just hospital bills and suffering, but also wages lost and potential future earning potential in the case of permanent personal injuries.

Thus, in a way, the answer is also somewhat… yes? If you get married and get a divorce, it is inevitable of course that you have to sacrifice something. You’re supposed to both be putting something into the marriage as equal partners and not everything can be so easily given a monetary value.

In this particular instance, the woman gave up a particularly lucrative career, earning £100,000 a year before she left. Many eligible men now also fear marriage as something that will hack away half their net worth when they get divorced. However, being taken to the cleaners by a gold-digger is nothing new either. It is symptomatic of a relationship of un-equals.

For every high-flying international billionaire like say, Elon Musk, there’s also a similar sanity check Bill and Melinda Gates. Treating marriage as a potentially adversarial partnership will make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Relationship Disadvantage in Median Households

The case, as Justice Moor stated, should not open the floodgates to other similar claims. Most median households would not apply. This is not so much a ‘rich people exemption’ but that the potential earning power of both partners in the marriage would be close enough that it would not matter.

Only matrimonial assets can be divided as part of financial remedy proceedings. After a divorce with children, one of the spouse will be made to continue maintenance payments for their children.

It’s not only financial adversity that affects couples in divorce, but when involving children it’s not just the welfare of children that should be considered but also parental separation and adult psychological distress. The one with the children needs additional upkeep in order to raise their children, but additionally paying maintenance continues to give the other parent rights to equitably access their children and play a substantial role in their lives.

 

No Weight Given to Pre-Nuptial Agreement

Now, when one thinks of preserving one’s assets in marriage, one usually thinks of pre-nuptial agreements. Some might think that the division of assets and spousal maintenance after a divorce is biased towards the woman. They would be wrong.

It is biased against big money. Relationship-generated disadvantage can be most clearly seen with prenuptial agreements that treat marriage and time spent together as little more than a contract-based relationship.

Let’s take the example of Morgan McConnell, the great-granddaughter of the founder of Avon Products, and Anil Ipekci, whom she met when he worked as a concierge at Le Parker Meridien in New York. They first met in 2003 and began co-habiting in January of 2005. They decided to marry.

A pre-nuptial agreement was drafted by McConnel’s private lawyer and another lawyer was found in order to give Ipekci independent legal advice. It just so happened that this lawyer was the solicitor that acted for McConnel in her divorce for her first husband. He first met the lawyer on the 3rd of November 2005, and by then the marriage had already been fixed to commence on 26th of the same month of 2005.

The draft had surprising qualities, which as Mr Justice Mostyn noted:

“The husband must have been very surprised by what it contained. First and foremost, it provided that the agreement was deemed to have been made under the laws of the State of New York and that its validity and effect and construction should be determined in accordance with those laws regardless of where either party resided or was domiciled at the time of death or divorce or separation. Second, it provided that the parties wished any proceedings relating to the marriage to be determined in accordance with the laws of the State of New York and that they submitted to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of that State.”

Among the provisions given to Ipekci (in event of marriage lasting at least three years and with two children) was that any increase in the value of three properties in the name of the wife that were sited within Barnes, Hanwell, and New York, would be divided equally between the parties on divorce. The husband would not be entitled to claim any alimony or any other money from the wife. In the agreement the three properties were attributed with the value of $1.6 million or at present £1.24 million.

The husband was counseled that the agreement was slanted heavily in favour of the wife. Nonetheless, he signed it on 11 November 2005 and the parties were properly married 15 days later.

Now what actually happened was that the proceeds of the three properties were folded into their existing family home in Barnes, which had a net value of £1.074 million. There being no increase in value for both parties to share, under the agreement the husband would receive nothing at all.

Mr Justice Mostyn held that it would be wholly unfair to hold the husband to the agreement he signed for several reasons:

  • The contract specifically stated that the agreement would be governed by New York law. Astoundingly, the agreement was not accompanied by a certificate that it conformed with the local law it attested, and thus the agreement in New York would have “minimal weight, if any” citing a previous case in the New York Appeal Court that a document “would carry no legal force except for the minor impact of its historical voice”.
  • It would therefore be unjustifiable to attribute weight to the agreement when under the law that both parties signed it under it would not be granted any weight,
  • While it could not be said that the husband was afforded a full appreciation of the legal implications of the document, and it was not proven satisfactory that the solicitor who gave the advice was not compromised. The situation showed apparent bias.
  • The agreement didn’t serve any needs of the husband,
  • Thus Justice Mostyn attributed no weight to the pre-nuptial agreement.

Since all of the assets in the case either were or had their origin in non-matrimonial property, the claim was decided solely by reference to the principle of needs.

Mr Justice Mostyn said:

“The following are relevant considerations in determining the reasonable needs of the husband:

  1. i) This was a 12-year cohabitative relationship.
  2. ii) As a result of the way that the parties organised their married life the husband has made no provision for himself from his earnings either by way of savings or pension.iii) The standard of living, whilst not by any means a determinative factor, is relevant and was in this case reasonably high.
  3. iv) It is in the interests of the two children of the marriage that their father has a reasonable home in which they can stay with him comfortably and that they do not perceive him as being in some way the poor relation.
  4. v) The husband will not be making any contribution to the maintenance of the children or to their school fees – they will be supported entirely by the wife save in respect of those incidental expenses met by the husband during the time that the children spend with him.vi) In respect of the sum allowed for the husband’s housing it is not necessary for all of it to be provided to him outright. There was agreement at the Bar that it would be reasonable for half of the housing sum awarded to be charged back in favour of the wife (or her estate) on the death of the husband.”

He awarded the husband a lump sum of £1,333,500 of which £375,000 was subject to a charge-back.

The English court is not bound to make an order in the same terms as a prenuptial agreement. While it could make a good defense against financial claims, at certain necessary times the court may make orders different to them.

Pre-nuptial agreements can be reviewed, they are not set in stone. A rational marriage can decide for itself if people should be held to the terms of a historic agreement and avoid costly litigation.

Or in summary, if big money wants to play silly buggers with contract law the courts will have none of that mischief and works with what is most realistic.

 

Money and Property after a Marriage Ends

The court in the UK will general divide things in half, but that is merely the starting point. Matrimonial assets refer to money and properties that were gained during the course of the marriage, which may include

  • Family home
  • Other real estate
  • Pensions
  • Savings
  • Vehicles
  • Furniture & appliances
  • Stocks, bonds and mutual funds
  • Businesses

The court aims to divide assets in a fair and equal manner, but this doesn’t mean a mathematically equal measure. The court will seek to provide for

  1. The relative needs of each party – the spouse with the weaker economic situation may be given more as part of the settlement, such as the home, etc., unlike the spouse who can afford multiple properties.
  2. Child custody – the spouse who is responsible for primarily caring for the children would need to be awarded more to secure their welfare.
  3. Compensation for future earnings – the spouse who sacrificed their career in order to care for their family and children may be awarded more in capital in order to get back on their feet and prepare to rejoin the workforce.

Also do note that it’s not just assets that can be distributed, but also debts. Everything accrued during the marriage period may be split during the decision. This may include mortgages, credit cards, loans, and other commitments.

It is not easy to quantify the worth of being a good mother or father, but such a thing has a far greater influence than merely the number of properties or figures in the bank account. The UK courts recognize the value of the physical, emotional, and psychological support provided by the non-working party in a relationship.