Fairness, Finance and a Short Marriage 

Published on 14 June, 2017 | Andrew Newbury

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Marital collapse is, unfortuately, a far from uncommon occurrence.

Whenever spouses decide to go their separate ways, there are two essential elements to the divorce process.

The first is administrative – the obtaining of decrees nisi and then absolute six weeks or so apart – while the second deals with the delicate division of the assets which a couple have acquired over the course of their marriage.

Those involved in deliberations about assets do so conscious of the importance of not only arriving at a settlement which is fair to both parties but meets the needs of the financially weaker spouse.

Since a House of Lords ruling in October 2000 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/4471156/Alls-fair-in-love-and-divorce.html), the central concept has been one of an equal split unless there are very particular circumstances which justify a departure from the idea of a 50-50 division.

In the intervening years, a number of judgements have prompted much debate about fairness. One, in May 2006, saw confirmation of the £5 million awarded to Melissa Miller after less than three years of marriage (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1509263/Three-year-wifes-5m-divorce-a-meal-ticket-for-life.html).

Now, the Court of Appeal has refocused attention on the importance of the length of marriages in determining the resources allocated to husbands and wives with which to start their newly-single lives once they have divorced.

Judges have agreed with Julie Sharp who argued that her IT consultant ex-husband, Robin, should not receive a half-share of their £5.45 million fortune after their four-year marriage collapsed amid allegations of his infidelity.

During a hearing in February, the Court had been told how Mrs Sharp, a former energy trader, had earned £10.5 million in bonuses over the course of their relationship.

However, the Appeal Court has decided that because the marriage was relatively short, produced no children and involved two professionals who earned healthy incomes of their own, Mr Sharp should only receive a property and lump sum award totalling £2 million.

As I’ve been telling the Daily Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/couples-divorcing-short-marriage-may-no-longer-have-assets-split/), the ruling may well have wider than for a lot more couples than the Sharps.

In fact, I believe that it amounts to something of a sea change in how the critical concept of fairness should be applied to short marriages in paricular.

Over the last few years, there has been a subtle shift towards making needs the main factor in reaching a settlement and what the Court of Appeal has done is effectively reinforce that progression.

Even in this decision, the judges have identified how settlements should take into account the standard of living enjoyed by spouses during their marriage but established that there should be limits, even in cases featuring couples who possess the kind of significant joint wealth which would comfortably allow someone’s needs to be taken care of.

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