Judges often plead with divorcing couples to bury the hatchet rather than subject themselves to the financial and emotional self-harm of litigation. As a High Court case showed, however, such good advice is sadly not always heeded.
The case concerned a couple who worked together in their construction business and, from small beginnings, built up an enviable property portfolio. They had three children and, more than a decade after their separation, they remained legally married. They had obtained a decree nisi but no decree absolute.
Two years after their relationship ended, they reached an amicable agreement by which they sought to divide their assets. The husband retained the business, which had since prospered mightily. The current position was that he had a net worth of £12,450,000. The wife, whose net worth was £1,625,000, launched proceedings seeking at least £5 million from the husband.
Ruling on the matter, a judge observed that divorce proceedings could not have got off to a worse start: they had been separated for over nine years when the wife petitioned for divorce without any prior warning to the husband. He suffered the utmost hurt and distress as a result of her unnecessarily aggressive conduct. The judge, however, ruled that she should not be penalised for that.
He acknowledged that, were it not for the post-separation agreement, the wife would have been entitled to a substantial capital sum from the husband. The equal sharing principle would have applied to the case, albeit focused on the assets at the date of their separation and heavily discounted to take account of the husband’s post-separation success in expanding the business.
The existence of the agreement could not, however, be ignored and the judge was not prepared to agree with the wife’s assertion that the husband had cheated her. Overall, he found that it would be fair and reasonable to require the husband to pay the wife a £600,000 lump sum, or to transfer to her assets of equivalent value. He could well afford such a payment and, after making it, he would remain very significantly richer than the wife.
The judge noted that, more than once during the case, he had implored the couple to settle their differences rather than press ahead with a six-day trial. He deeply regretted their failure to take that course. Although they had been well served by their legal teams, their inability to compromise had caused untold damage to the whole family. They had incurred legal costs of at least £500,000.
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