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Should the Length of a Marriage Determine the Divorce Settlement?

on Friday, 25 August 2017.

Should the length of a marriage play a part in deciding what each spouse should receive on divorce? To what extent should other factors be taken into account, like the contribution each person has made to the joint finances?

These are the questions that our family lawyers advise clients upon every day, and the legal starting point is that there should be equality on divorce. This is known as the 'sharing principle.'

However, one of the factors that can lead a court to move away from the sharing principle is the length of the marriage, as in a recent case.

Sharp v Sharp

This career-focussed couple were both in their 40s and were married in June 2009. They had no children.  Their marriage ended in December 2013, leading the Judge to describe their marriage as "not so desperately short… as some, but still by no means lengthy".

The wife was a trader and the husband was employed by an international IT company. Their basic salaries were similar, at around £100,000 each. However, in addition, the wife received discretionary annual bonuses which had totalled £10.5million during the marriage.

There was no agreement that the couple should maintain separate finances but there had never been a joint bank account or any joint investments. The husband was not aware of the details of the wife's bonuses and the wife fully funded the couple's holidays, the purchase of two of their houses, and bought three Aston Martin cars for her husband.

However, their marriage broke down and the wife started divorce proceedings in December 2013.

What Does the Law Say?

The Court must consider a number of factors when deciding the division of assets. This includes the age of the parties, the length of the marriage and the contributions from both parties, financial and otherwise, including raising children. Whilst the duration of the marriage is a factor, it is not the only factor to be assessed.

The Court's Initial Decision

In Mr and Mrs Sharp's case, their total assets were £6.9 million, and the husband sought a total financial package worth £3million.

At the first Court hearing, the Judge found no sufficient reason to depart from the sharing principle and awarded the husband £2.725 million.

However, the wife appealed on the basis that:

  • this was a short, dual career childless marriage
  • that the couple structured their finances in a particular way

The Court of Appeal awarded the husband £2million

What Does This Mean if You Are Divorcing?

The Sharps' case should not unsettle the clear understanding that in the vast majority of cases, the sharing principle should apply.

Whilst the sharing principle is the starting point, this case demonstrated that there can be circumstances where there is good reason to depart from it.

It is therefore extremely important to obtain independent legal advice upon separation. This does not mean that you have to issue Court proceedings. Advice can be obtained during the mediation process.

Our matrimonial team are members of Resolution, a body which promotes a non-confrontational approach to family problems. We have strong expertise in assisting clients in resolving financial matters upon separation.

If you need advice in this area, please contact Samantha Hickman, in our Family Law team, on 0117 314 5435.

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