What Happens When Marriages Don't Last Long?

Issue 26

A recent divorce case has brought a change in the way that courts view short-lived marriages. Jonathan Flower, Partner and Head of the Family Law team at Ward Hadaway, has more.

A recent Court of Appeal case has prompted a change in the approach the courts are likely to take in short marriage cases.

In the case – Sharp V Sharp [2017] EWCA Civ 408 – the parties were in their early forties, had been married for a short period of time and did not have children.

Both had their own careers and had kept a degree of their finances separate. The wife had been paid substantial bonuses during their time together.

At the time of the hearing, their total assets amounted to £6.9 million.

Since 2001, the courts have approached financial remedy cases on the basis that matrimonial assets should be divided on a 50/50 basis. This has become known as the ‘sharing principle’.

The High Court Judge at first instance in this case awarded the husband £2.725 million, representing half of the assets that had accumulated during their marriage (known as the ‘marital assets’).

In calculating the marital assets, the Judge excluded the couple’s first joint property as it was purchased prior to their marriage and he deducted an additional figure in respect of other pre-acquired assets giving the husband half of the balance.

The wife appealed to the Court of Appeal. It was her case that there should not be a 50/50 spilt of the assets on the basis that this was a short marriage with no children, that both the husband and wife had careers and had kept some of their finances separate.

She argued that this justified a relaxation of the sharing principle and that fairness should lead to a different approach depending on the length of the marriage.

She argued that the husband should get one half of the value of the two jointly owned properties but have no claim on her other capital.

On appeal, the husband’s award was reduced to £2 million. The first joint property was ordered to be transferred to him and, in addition, he received a lump sum.

The award was based on the husband retaining half the value of the two joint properties and an additional lump sum to take account of:

the standard of living during the marriage

a modest amount to enable him to live in the property he was to retain

a share in the assets held by the wife.

The Court of Appeal agreed that as this was a short marriage, with no children, dual careers and the parties had kept some of their finances separate, this was “one of the very small number of cases” where these factors justified a departure from equality and the ‘sharing principle’ to achieve fairness between the husband and the wife.

Whilst each case is different on its facts, this case highlights a change in the way the courts may consider the ‘sharing principle’ in short marriage cases and highlights the importance that all the circumstances of the case should be considered.

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