Need Trumps All: Divorce And The Short Marriage
Published on 25 June, 2020 | Alison Fernandes
It’s a fact that divorce is a more frequent feature of modern life than in previous generations.
Even if we take into account a gradual decline over the last quarter of a century in the number of couples who end their marriages this way, the 91,299 divorces in England and Wales during 2018 still represented a higher total than for any year prior to 1972, according to figures released last November by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2018).
Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be surprised when we read a little further into the ONS data and learn that the average length of marriage is just 12.5 years – far less than our parents or grandparents might have expected.
Of course, just as there are many marriages which last much longer than that, there are also those relationships which end rather more suddenly.
One such case has come to mind via press reports in recent days. It involved a woman who was awarded a lump sum of £110,000 and two years’ maintenance following the end of a marriage of only eight months’ duration (https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/woman-married-man-eight-months-18449577).
At first glance, it might appear to fully justify remarks about the English courts being extremely generous to wives when it comes to determining divorce settlements.
However, the obvious need for journalists to summarise stories in short headlines means that they can’t include the finer points of a ruling which, I would argue, is of tremendous use to married couples – and, I should add, to family lawyers like myself.
I say that because the full judgement underlines a number of very important elements which explain how the final figures were arrived at (https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2020/B24.html), things which might not necessarily be easily condensed into a news story.
One of them prompts yet another reference to helpful ONS’ material.
The couple concerned joined the growing number of relatively older spouses when they married in their late forties.
Although marriage numbers in younger age groups are falling, those who are middle-aged and older are reversing that trend. In the last five years for which statistics are available, the proportion of annual marriages accounted for by men and women aged over 45 rose by five per cent (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2017).
At that point in their lives, they are increasingly conscious of the need to ensure that they can provide for their later years.
Courts too are fully aware of just how essential it is to ensure that neither spouse is financially disadvantaged as a result of divorce.
This recent case was something of an object lesson in providing fairness and equality.
The wife had given up a long-term, reasonably priced rental property in a good area of London to live briefly in the marital home and needed to be afforded the means to secure accommodation after the break-up.
Her ex-husband was also given time to come up with the money to do just that without meaning that he had to sell his own house.
This judgement underlines how it doesn’t really matter how long a marriage is when it comes to dividing joint assets.
Instead, in a marriage without children, the needs of the financially weaker spouse become a priority.
If this case has another value, it is in more than simply restating the fundamental principles of divorce.
It is a very timely reminder that marriages can be both long and loved, and be short and acrimonious.
Divorce law is also by its very nature discretionary and, therefore, unpredictable.
With that in mind, every possible bit of clarity can bring immense comfort and few things are more able to provide that than a pre-nuptial agreement (or a cohabitation agreement, in the case of individuals moving in together without marrying).
They’re helpful in establishing how assets may be divided fairly in the event that relationships, sadly, do not work out.
Even though they may not form the basis of a good headline, they do make for peace of mind.