Divorce Settlements / Marriage for Profit / Gold Diggers / Younger Women & Older Man
The myth of the kept woman This week Baroness Deech claimed that wives were doing too well out of divorce, a trend that was discriminatory to men and demeaning to women. The public outcry that greets most high-profile settlements suggests that Deech is not alone – but is she right? Heather Mills gives a thumbs up sign as she leaves the high court after her divorce settlement case. Photograph: Getty Images If you believe the papers, you would be forgiven for thinking that all divorces end with the wife walking off with a huge proportion of her husband's fortune. Yesterday, it was reported that William Murphy, a former banker, had gone to the court of appeal to fight for a "fairer deal" after he claimed he was left with £450,000 of a £3m fortune after his divorce. His lawyer argued that Murphy's wife, Helene, already had a well-paid job as a director of an art gallery. The couple, who divorced last year, had been married for 10 years and had no children. Martin Pointer QC, Murphy's lawyer said the judge's approach had been "discriminatory" in putting the wife's needs above the husband's.
This is precisely the sort of case – a relatively short marriage, no children, a wife who earns her own living – that Baroness Deech was talking about when she gave a series of law lectures earlier this week, claiming that the divorce laws are unfair on men, as well as old-fashioned and degrading to women.
"The notion that a wife should get half of the joint assets of a couple after even a short, childless marriage has crept up on us without any parliamentary legislation to this effect," she said. "It is no wonder that England is the divorce capital of Europe and out of step with other European countries."
She argued that a wife should not have any claim to assets in a marriage lasting less than three years; in a longer marriage, only the assets acquired during the time they were together should be divided. Maintenance should not be paid to women unless they can't work or have young children to look after – and should end if the women starts living with another man. "I've had an overwhelmingly positive response, which has been quite surprising because I've been saying the same thing for 30 years," she says. What does she think has changed? "Women's position in society. If women, quite rightly, expect equality in pay and employment and education, there is a difficulty in squaring that with the way they are pictured in the divorce courts."
There have been numerous high-profile cases where women have been awarded generous settlements and maintenance. In 2007, John Charman, who made his fortune in insurance, lost his appeal against having to pay his former wife £48m after 27 years of marriage. In 2006, the House of Lords ordered Kenneth McFarlane, a partner at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, the accountancy firm, to give his wife Julia maintenance of £250,000 a year, as well as their London home. It also dismissed an appeal from Alan Miller, a hedge fund manager, who was ordered to give his wife Melissa £5m, after a childless marriage lasting just three years.
Deech says she believes such settlements send the wrong message to young women – that you should marry for money. "I am on the side of working women," she says. "The rewards society hands out go to the least deserving. I am terribly worried that claims to equal pay and treatment will be undermined by these high-profile cases."
Almost every newspaper which ran Deech's comments about the divorce laws being unfair on men illustrated the story with a picture of Heather Mills, who is regularly described as a "gold-digger". Contrast that with, say, the glow that surrounded the actor Billie Piper, who was said not to have taken a penny from the radio DJ Chris Evans in their divorce, although unlike Mills, she didn't have a child with her former husband. Though Deech's comments may at first seem extreme, it seems her views are in fact widely held.
But they are unreasonable, insists Anthony Julius, the divorce lawyer who advised Mills for a while during the case. "[McCartney's wealth] wasn't split 50/50," he says. In fact, the £24.3m Mills received represented around 3% of McCartney's estimated £800m worth. "As I read the judgment, it was based not on his wealth but on the needs created and the standard of living she had enjoyed while married. Why should the mother of a child have a very different standard of living from the father of that child?"
And doesn't what Deech is saying devalue the role of women who give up work to raise children? "I didn't give up my job," she says. "There are plenty of women who can't afford to give up their jobs, so I believe that for those who do, it is very much a lifestyle choice. And they tend to be wealthy, so I don't know how much childcare, and housework and laundry they do anyway.
"I'm not saying [stay-at-home mothers] should be devalued but we need to make up our minds. You can't cry for equal pay and treatment on one hand, but then expect to be a kept woman on the other. I thought we had got away from that."
The few high-profile cases where women are awarded vast sums are very much in the minority, of course. "Baroness Deech is wrong if she thinks the law is unfair on men," says Susan Himmelweit, professor of economics at the Open University and member of the International Association for Feminist Economics.
"If we were talking about more normal cases, I think few people would object to a division of the assets and maintenance, but in most divorces, there isn't enough money to go around. And in cases where there is too much money, it's hard to justify any kind of division because these sums are inconceivable."
The reaction to these women is also disproportionate. We may believe a woman hasn't earned her million-pound settlement just because she was married to a rich man, "but what is never talked about is whether he really 'earned' his fortune in the City or wherever."
For all that these high-profile cases end up making it appear that women come out of a divorce with a swollen bank balance, their husbands a financial slave to them for the rest of their lives, the reality for the vast majority of women is very different. One study showed that after a divorce, a man's income eventually increases by 11%, while a woman's falls by 17%. Other studies back this up, finding that women are generally poorer after divorce – usually because they take on the bulk of the childcare, and their earning capacity is diminished – and more likely to qualify for income support than divorced men.
It is true, however, that England, and London in particular, has become known as the divorce capital of the world because settlements offered to wives are compared with those elsewhere in Europe.
Charlotte Butruille-Cardew, a lawyer who specialises in Franco-English divorces describes an absurd situation where couples literally race to court to file a divorce petition first. "The UK has become extremely attractive with respect to the financial rewards given to wives," she says. She has seen situations where a French couple living in the UK, or a French man with an English wife, have decided to divorce and the husband's lawyers will jump on the next Eurostar to Paris to file a petition in a French court before the wife can lodge hers with an English court.
"Sometimes you find two petitions lodged with barely 10 minutes between them," she says. It has forced couples to become sneaky, she says – men will come to her, fill out the paperwork so the petition is ready to go before even discussing divorce with their wife.
Under European regulations, you are able to lodge a divorce petition in one of the member states if you are a national of that country, domiciled there, or have been resident for six months.
"So I wouldn't say people actually move to the UK seeking a divorce, but I think expat couples, and particularly the wife, would think very carefully before returning to France," says Butruille-Cardew. "She might phone her lawyer and say she is thinking of filing for divorce and the lawyer will tell her to stay in the UK.
"You also find the opposite – I have seen men, especially those with high incomes, move their families and offices out of the UK before filing for divorce."
It isn't just foreign nationals or the very wealthy who shop around. According to research by a Manchester firm, Pannone, there were disparities between the awards given in courts in different parts of the country – what they described as a divorce courts "lottery". It found that judges in the south of England were more generous to wives than those in the north.
Andrew Newbury, a partner in the firm, says he believes judges in the south of England have "more of a paternalistic approach. In the north, they expect women to stand on their own two feet. It's partly cultural, and trends [among judgments in one particular area] develop."
In theory, anyone can issue a petition anywhere in England and Wales; the other partner could ask for it to be moved to where they live. "It does happen. Lawyers will advise clients where they can get the best deal."
And this, says Julius, is where Deech has got it so wrong. The point is not whether British divorce laws are unfair on men – this, he says dismissively, "is the kind of language of a family row in the kitchen." The real problem, Julius says, "is the excessive discretion the courts have. Sometimes it works in favour of the husband, sometimes the wife, but the real injustice is in the unpredictability of the judge's decision."
The result, he says, is "a kind of judicial chaos", adding: "There are cases where husbands and wives jointly create the wealth, cases of short marriages, different expectations. There is considerable variety but the courts' discretion is not exercised consistently. Lawyers should be able to tell their clients what will happen [in a court] and what to expect and lawyers are unable to do that.
"That is much more of a problem than this sloganising about whether women are getting a good deal or not."
In 2007, there were 128,534 divorces in England and Wales, a fall of 3% on the previous year (but there were also fewer marriages). One in five men and women divorcing that year had already had a previous divorce – a number that has doubled since 1980. According to Newbury, most want a divorce on grounds of unreasonable behaviour, with adultery second. "It's been the same for years," he says, "people don't really change."
But family structures do. Family lawyers have long been calling for the divorce laws to be updated, as they have barely changed for 40 years. This week, it was reported that plans were being drawn up by ministers to force divorcing couples to consider mediation before going to court, which has strong support among family lawyers. Another process called "collaborative law" is also becoming popular, where the couple is each represented by a solicitor, and they try to reach an agreement. But change happens slowly.
"The issue of divorce and family law is a political hot potato," says Jill Goldman, a partner at Thomas Eggar. "It touches many people's lives, so politicians are reluctant to get involved. But the law hasn't kept up with changes in society." She points to the failure by the government to protect people in co-habiting relationships, the fastest-growing family type. Courts have also struggled with pre-nuptial agreements.
Newbury has been struck, too, by the number of men who have come to him seeking settlements and maintenance from their breadwinner wives. They rarely win, he says. "Settlements are different, but wives paying maintenance to their ex-husbands is virtually unheard of," he says. "I think the view is that, unless the husband is elderly or ill, men can and should provide for themselves.
"In 20 years, I've only had one case where a man was awarded maintenance."
Our Guiding Principle:
employ dedicated and experienced team of consultants, investigators and researchers who provide a discreet, professional and dedicated service that will find answers to any questions you have