Noises Off: Focusing On The Priorities Of Divorce
Published on 18 November, 2022 | Rachel Cocker
Given the degree to which we rely on news media to keep us informed of events around the world, it’s perhaps only natural to find that it can shape our perception of how things happen outside our own homes.
It’s especially true of the divorce disputes which register on the pages of the national newspapers.
Whereas, for instance, we can see for ourselves how events unfold in a televised football match, we rely on articles in the press for the details of how some couples’ marriages break apart.
Unsurprisingly, print and online media focus on those elements which make a strong story and are likely to appeal to readers.
Take, for instance, the case of the former footballer Francesco Totti whose divorce has come before the courts in Italy (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/6739edf8-61eb-11ed-80da-2c56e60527b0?shareToken=5981acd72aba29dc83503fa06ce547a8).
It has become known as the ‘war of the wardrobe’. That is due to the attention in the lead up to these proceedings which has centred on how Totti and, Ilary Blasi, his wife of 17 years, have held onto each other’s designer watches, handbags and footwear in an effort to influence the financial terms on which they will ultimately bring their marriage to a close.
Whilst I’m not sure how regularly Signor Totti reads the Daily Telegraph, his circumstances echo the observations of my colleague Alison Fernandes.
Last year, she noted a rise in divorces featured couples intent on rowing about ownership of a wide range of luxury items, from cars, clothes and even bikes (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/consumer-affairs/new-divorce-wars-designer-handbags-luxury-watches/).
As Alison correctly identified, such friction does not help the process of resolving whatever differences may arise between separating husbands and wives.
The starting point for the division of marital assets from the point of view of divorce lawyers and the courts is always the financial requirements of those involved, particularly those of the less well-off spouse. Needs really do trump all other considerations.
It is a principle which has been given fresh currency in a judgement handed down by the High Court earlier this week.
The case had seen German businessman Michael Fuchs and his ex-wife, French journalist Alvina Collardeau-Fuchs, presenting their respective arguments as to how his billion pound fortune should be divided.
Whereas Mr Fuchs maintained that, partially due to the presence of a pre-nuptial agreement, he should not have to pay more than £30 million.
Ms Collardeau-Fuchs, meanwhile, had been seeking more than £45 million, a figure which her ex-husband’s lawyers suggested was “evidence of greed, not need” (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11426357/Estranged-wife-billionaire-Chrysler-building-owner-awarded-37million-prenup.html).
In the end, Mr Justice Mostyn decided that she should receive almost £37.5 million with Mr Fuchs also having to set aside £14.3 million for maintenance, care and school fees for the couple’s two children (https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2022/135.html).
The scale of the wealth in the case was far greater than that of all but a fraction of the 113,505 who divorced in England and Wales during 2021 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2021).
Nevertheless, the Fuchs’ divorce has parallels in situations between spouses and civil partners who might not be anywhere near as well-to-do.
After all, couples with fewer financial resources might reasonably be expected to contest settlement discussions more vigorously.
That is one of the reasons why divorces concluded between April and June this year took 56 weeks on average – seven weeks longer than during the same period in 2021 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2022/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2022#divorce).
Of course, April was also when the provisions of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2022/9780348230949) came into force.
Most eye-catching of them all was ‘ no-fault’ divorce, which allowed spouses convinced that their marriages had irretrievably broken down to petition for divorce without having to make allegations about the conduct of their other half.
As progressive and helpful as that new law might be in respect of cause, it has done nothing to make asset division any easier – and, in my experience, that part of the entire divorce process is where most of the disputes occur.
At Hall Brown, in an effort to avoid a marriage break-up being even more difficult, we always insist that clients focus not on any individual possessions but on the critical elements of need and fairness.
Failing to do so can do more than store up trouble and create delay. In another notable divorce case in 2020, Mr Justice Mostyn underline one additional consequence “loud and clear”.
“If…you do not openly negotiate reasonably, then you will likely suffer a penalty in costs”
Regardless of the temptation to score points, it shouldn’t take a High Court ruling for spouses to realise the merits of ignoring the noise of a divorce and focus on the priorities.
As even a multi-millionaire footballer like Francesco Totti might now appreciate, the goal when a marriage ends should be avoiding stress and drama rather than increasing tension, no matter how nice a handbag might appear.