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For better or worse

Sarah Crilly, Associate in the Family team, looks at the outcomes in two recent divorce cases that hit the press.

A spate of recent cases in the news have caused matrimonial lawyers and experts alike to re-consider the issues arising where parties delay or fail to deal with their finances whilst dealing with the paper divorce and also what constitutes ‘reasonable needs’ when deciding how matrimonial and other assets are to be treated.

In those cases where spouses’ finances have never been resolved despite being divorced, parties are finding that, sometimes many years later, they are being taken back to court when one party’s circumstances have worsened or simply because the other party’s has improved dramatically.

In truth, there is no deadline for resolving financial issues between a divorced couple and no requirement for there to be a change in circumstances on either side – for better or for worse – and the latest big case to hit the news on this point shows the risks involved in leaving that issue hanging.

The Supreme Court ruled that a wife who had been divorced from her husband for 18 years was entitled to a lump sum payment of £300,000 from him.

This involved a very short marriage of only 3 years duration.  They didn’t have much by way of assets at the time of separation but years after they divorced, the husband became a green energy tycoon and multi-millionaire.

The wife claimed £1.9 million of the husband’s estimated £107 million but the Judge said the wife had been unwise to pitch her claim at that level saying an award approaching that size was “out of the question”.

The other case involved a Saudi billionaire who had been married to a supermodel. On divorce, the wife was seeking £196 million to meet her ‘reasonable needs’ and was awarded £75million.

Her lawyers said the award was by more than £50million the largest needs award ever made by an English Court.  The wife had argued that her ‘reasonable needs’ should allow her to seek to maintain her ultra-wealthy lifestyle.

Standard of living arguments do not normally carry much weight in those cases which concentrate on dealing with reasonable needs other than perhaps the standard of accommodation a person may reside in so for family lawyers this was quite a diversion from the normal approach.

Whilst these two cases are unusual on their facts, given the change of circumstances in the first case and the amount of money involved in the second, it is clear that leaving the split of wealth to a court, either at the time of a divorce or many years later, will leave parties in a very uncertain situation due to the large discretion that is afforded to the matrimonial courts by the relevant legislation.

* For more information on the issues raised by this article please contact one of our specialist divorce lawyers

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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