The court recently confirmed that the length of your marriage is relevant to how assets of the relationship are shared if you separate. The court starts with ‘the sharing principle’. This means equal sharing of matrimonial wealth , that is assets and savings built up in the marriage, unless one spouse needs more, for example if an equal share would not meet their needs or the needs of dependent children. However, assets brought into the relationship at the start, especially if kept separate, can be seen as non-matrimonial. Inheritances are treated differently too.
So, what about in a short marriage? Especially if there are no children? Leaving aside assets or property owned before the marriage, is it fair that the rest is split evenly? Even if one spouse was responsible for contributing much more of the matrimonial assets, say by substantial bonus awards?
The Court examined this recently. Mr & Mrs Sharp were both in their early 40s, had no children, both had careers and Mrs Sharp held her capital, which was more substantial than Mr Sharp’s, separately from Mr Sharp. They had been together for six years. Mr Sharp was asking for a 50:50 split but Mrs Sharp’s argument was that as it was a short marriage with no children, so there was no reason why things should be divided equally.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Mrs Sharp, finding there was no obligation to share the assets equally, especially as they were owned separately in the first place. Added to which, with a short marriage, no children, and the fact that both had their own separate incomes meant that Mr Sharp was not dependent on Mrs Sharp to provide.
This is a key case. It means people separating will look carefully at how long they have been living together, in order to increase/decrease the length of the relationship. Whilst the Court defined six years as “short” it did not offer any further guidance as to what will be considered “short” or “long”.
What does this mean?
It means that there is no assumption that you will share assets equally following a short marriage unless one party needs at least equal or more. Whilst it is still the best advice to agree a pre-nuptial agreement if you want to keep assets separately, the Courts are no longer going to automatically assume equal sharing in a short marriage.
Meanwhile in France…
At the other end of the spectrum, in France, divorcing couples can now write their own divorces, including financial and children agreements, sign them and register them. This is not possible in England and Wales, where every financial agreement still has to be adjudicated upon by a Judge, even when both parties agree it.
However, if you do reach and register divorce, financial and children settlements in France, it seems that they may not necessarily be recognised in England and Wales. If you have registered such an arrangement in France you should take advice about whether it will be recognised here. Even if the agreement is intended to be final and binding, an English Court might in the future have power to re-open it. Also it means that such an order regarding children may not be automatically enforceable in England and Wales.
If you have any questions to ask about this article or any other articles in previous months, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.