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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March, 2005, 10:17 GMT
Protecting the family assets
Andrew Flint Shipman's Dreaming Of Love at Spectrum Fine Art
If you fall in love with this you'll want to keep it forever
In a smart London gallery, customers fall in love with paintings and get out their cheque books. But it is not just the art they take home.

Spectrum Fine Art is offering buyers a pre-nuptial contract which allows couples to agree in advance which of them would keep the work should they marry and then split.

"Really bad rows are often over a picture because it's something that people invest emotional attachment in," says solicitor Richard Sax, of Manches and Co.

Pre-nuptial agreements now are not just about the very rich protecting their assets.

People make them over a flat inherited from an aunt or a piece of family jewellery. Or how about the family pet?

I've seen a case argued for half a day in front of a judge over a dog
Richard Sax

"I've seen a case argued for half a day in front of a judge over a dog," says Mr Sax. "Make an agreement about it and then everyone can see if it's being honoured."

Unlike America, pre-nups are not automatically recognised by UK courts. But in the last two years the Appeal Court has found for pre-nup agreements and Resolution, which represents solicitors practising family law, has said they should be binding.

Mr Sax's firm of 20 family lawyers handles around 500 divorces a year but only 40 pre-nups. He believes they will become "more significant".

Britain's divorce courts are seen as among the most generous in the world. Generally, if people part after several years and have children, their finances will be split 50:50 and a non-earning partner will be entitled to maintenance payments.

'Romance eyes'

In Germany, for example, a wife only gets maintenance in exceptional circumstances. And in France, pre-nups are considerably more usual because of property and land inheritance laws.

To bridge the gap, the European Union announced plans this week for a pan-European divorce code, a sort of pre-nup without borders.

Couples from different nationalities would agree to one set of property rules, rather than fight over which country to divorce in.

Kate's Lips by Sarah Jeffries at Spectrum Fine Art
You might kiss goodbye to the wife but you'd still have the art

Back in London, one couple has already taken the Spectrum gallery up on its offer.

Marrying in July, the groom-to-be has excluded the painting - worth several thousands of pounds - from their marital possessions, while his fiancée has added a couple of things of her own.

It does not sound romantic but Mark Keenan, of Divorce-Online, which drew up the agreement, says it could be the best wedding present they get.

"There's research which suggests that where pre-nups have been entered into, the marriage lasts longer," he says.

"People who have them are practical and are not going in with only romantic eyes."

Mr Sax agrees they can cut out heartache further down the line.

"They force couples to think about and discuss the big things they disagree about before marrying," he says. "Some people don't even talk about important things like having a family."

But Benn Linnell, who sold the painting, sees it as protecting a purchase which is anything but practical.

"I watch people fall in love with paintings. It would be quite a wrench to lose something that you love," he says.

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