Matrimonial Assets And Murder: How Conduct Impacts Divorce Settlements
Published on 05 October, 2023 | Sky Langwieser
Marriages are complex, dynamic things and whether they ultimately work or not comes down to the individuals involved.
If they fail, there is seldom a mutual understanding that the relationship has run its course – at least, not initially.
In my experience, it is more likely that one spouse feels unhappy with the conduct of the other.
During 2021 – the most recent full year for which divorce figures have been published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – just over half (51 per cent) of all marriage collapses were due to one or other party’s unreasonable behaviour (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2021).
However, a new law – the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 – came into force
in April last year and removed the need to atttribute blame in order to end a marriage.
Rather than detailing someone’s misbehaviour, all that is now required is a statement that the relationship has “irretrievably” broken down (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/11/contents/enacted).
Even without precise data regarding the reasons why marriages fail, information released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in the last week or so provides some indication that is divorce remains a rather unilateral process.
Seventy-five per cent of the 24,624 divorce applications made between April and June this year were not joint but by sole individuals (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2023/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2023#divorce).
That certainly isn’t to say that conduct no longer has any bearing on the outcome of a divorce, even if it no longer influences the granting of a final order to the same degree as it used to.
In fact, one of the most important pieces of divorce law in the last century – the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – states that behaviour is one factor affecting the division couple’s joint assets, especially when conduct is such that “it would in the opinion of the court be inequitable to disregard it” (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1973/18/section/25).
It is an issue which surfaced in a recent High Court ruling in Northern Ireland and has been picked up by various news media.
The Times has reported how Alison Seales was awarded three-quarters of the marital assets amassed with her pig farmer husband of 19 years, James Seales (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/abba86f8-6123-11ee-977c-44b3e2b54888?shareToken=cf0811fb33a35a1dc6b803f0b8f50d70).
Their divorce followed his conviction for murder and life imprisonment in 2014.
Nevertheless, the full judgement spells out how the crime and subsequent jail term were not the only factors in the High Court’s decision (https://www.bailii.org/nie/cases/NIHC/Master/2023/6.html).
It was, acknowledged Master Bell, an “unusual” attempt to secure a departure from the starting point of equality in the division of matrimonial assets.
That concept had been defined by a landmark House of Lords’ ruling in the case of another farming couple, Martin and Pamela White, in 2000.
Six years later, another notable Lords’ judgement in the divorces of Alan and Melissa Miller and Kenneth and Julia McFarlane remarked on the importance of conduct (https://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2006/24.html).
In that case, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, highlighted that, when it came to calculating financial settlements at the end of a marriage, it was still “a vexed issue”.
Mrs Seales described how she had been left “terrified” by the abuse which she suffered at the hands of her husband, suffering what was summarised as “many symptoms in keeping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”.
Even so, the most important element in the court’s determination was not Mr Seales’ conduct in and of itself but the impact which it had on his wife’s ongoing needs.
This was certainly not a case of Master Bell penalising him a second time for the murder which Mr Seales committed in 2012.
The fact that his wife remained “psychologically scarred” meant that she was unable to work, a reality which will have been central to the proportionate split of the Seales’ assets.
Such a conclusion stands out for its being relatively rare.
Financial misconduct – for example, one spouse’s reckless frittering away of joint matrimonial cash – is a more common feature in deliberations on divorce settlements unless, as I have stated, physical, coercive or controlling behaviour is so severe that it simply cannot be overlooked.
To be considered, it is vital that a divorcing spouse who believes it is a material fact raises it as soon as they can.
Conduct, of course, no longer forms part of the process by which conditional or final divorce orders are applied for.
However, one early opportunity to make the point is provided when completing Form E – the document which discloses respective assets.
It states that “bad behaviour or conduct by the other party will only be taken into account in very exceptional circumstances when deciding how assets should be shared after divorce/dissolution” (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1128798/Form_E_0123_save.pdf).
The High Court clearly felt that Mrs Seales argument was convincing and met the required threshold.
Her case, though, underlines once more that even in circumstances as shocking as hers, it is needs and not behaviour which is the determining factor in working out what share of a couple’s matrimonial assets a spouse should receive.