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Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Divorce money battles hot up
Couple arguing
Uncertainty about the law is fuelling acrimony
By BBC News Online personal finance reporter Sarah Toyne

Divorces are becoming more acrimonious and costly as husbands and wives increasingly fight over their individual 'contributions' to the marriage.


At the top end we are seeing more battles over contributions to the marriage. Divorce is starting to become more acrimonious

Ann Northover, a family lawyer at Gordon Dadds

The growing bitterness is in "big money" divorces, where there are financial assets worth more than 1m.

It is due to recent landmark decisions, which increase a woman's right to a share of assets on divorce.

Family lawyers report that couples are now "fighting right down to the last 1%" and people are looking to "dish the dirt" on one another in the hope of getting more money.

As a consequence costs are increasing.

American-style divorces

Wealthy women are also fairing much better in the divorce courts - now getting up to a 40% share of assets.

This is due to a "trickle-down effect" of two landmark legal judgements.

In America, ex-wives of wealthy husbands have always been awarded far bigger settlements than in the UK, as the courts recognised a wife's contribution to her husband's business and working life.

Major change

But a landmark legal judgement - White v. White - last October redefined 30 years of divorce laws and opened-up this possibility within the UK.

The Whites had built up a 4.6m farming business in Somerset during 33 years of marriage. But Pamela White had been given just 800,000 when they divorced in 1995.

Jacqueline Cowan
Jacqueline Cowan won 38% of the family's fortune

She wanted a more equal share of the business, and following a ruling by the Court of Appeal in June 1998 received a further 700,000.

Although a decision by the House of Lords in October 2000 failed to increase Mrs White's 1.5m settlement, the Law Lords endorsed her view that women who work with their husbands are permitted to an equal share of assets built up during marriage.

The Law Lords view was followed in May 2001 by another landmark legal judgement - Cowan v. Cowan.

Jacqueline Cowan won an increase in the share of her divorce settlement from 3.2m to 4.4m.

After a 35-year marriage to the inventor of the black bin liner (with drawstrings and in rolls), Mrs Cowan ended-up with 38% of the family fortune.

Repercussions

Ann Northover, a family lawyer at Gordon Dadds, a Mayfair law firm said: "These cases have had little effect on divorces of people with lower and middle incomes. The judge must be more pragmatic because of limited income and assets to split.

"However, at the top end we are seeing more battles over contributions to the marriage.

"Divorce is starting to become more acrimonious."

The disputes now focus on each partner's contribution to the marriage.

For example, women are keen to tell the courts about their role as a 'home maker' - from looking after children, to organising decorators and architects.

In practise, this means that more women are applying for 'narrative affidavits' which gives them a better chance of describing their 'full' contribution to the marriage.

'Formulaic' affidavits now used by the courts do not leave enough space for all these details.

James Allport of Withers, a City law firm, said that it was uncertainty surrounding the law in the light of the White and Cowan cases that was contributing to acrimony.

He said that it was less easy to predict outcomes of cases.

"The law is more uncertain and they are getting closer to trial. To that extent they are getting more acrimonious."

Mr Allport said that it was now time for parliament to intervene and clarify the law.

See also:

01 Dec 00 | Business
New pension rules for divorcees
30 Apr 01 | Middle East
Divorce study in Saudi Arabia
11 Oct 00 | Entertainment
Game for a divorce
16 May 01 | Education
Educating couples about marriage
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