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Divorce: What exactly is reasonable when it comes to reasonable needs?

Every now and then, amid screaming headlines, a divorce settlement will hit the newspapers and whip up a new storm of controversy about the definition of the term ‘reasonable needs’.

One recent example is the case of former model Christina Estrada who was awarded a £53million lump sum – the largest ‘needs award’ ever made by an English court – after a divorce battle with her billionaire ex-husband, a Saudi businessman who has since died.

In court, Ms Estrada claimed her reasonable needs – which to most ordinary people seem spectacular – included:

  • £40,000 a year for fur coats
  • £21,000 a year on shoes
  • £109,000 for haute couture dresses
  • £58,000 for two luxury handbags, £23,000 for six casual handbags and £35,000 for ten clutch bags every year

“Fortunate and rarefied”

Ms Estrada, who has one daughter with Sheik Walid Juffali to whom she was married for 13 years, was divorced by him without her knowledge in Saudi Arabia in 2014 under Islamic law.

She told the court: “Having grown up in a middle-class family and having enjoyed a successful career until my marriage, I am fully aware that the spectacular life Walid and I led was immensely fortunate and rarefied.

“And I fully understand how this can be perceived in the wider world.”

Referring to Ms Estrada’s own description of her lifestyle during her marriage as ‘magical’, Mrs Justice Roberts said: “This may well be an apt description. The issue is the extent to which she should be entitled to continue with the bubble of a ‘magical existence’ for the foreseeable future. I am concerned with ensuring that adequate provision is made to meet her reasonable needs.”

So what counts as reasonable needs?

In any financial divorce settlement, the court must ensure that so far as possible, within the context of their finances, both parties’ reasonable needs are met. And in doing so, the court will apply the various relevant factors from section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

Basic reasonable needs include provision for housing, furniture, a car and a budget for income requirements. It follows that the greater the parties’ wealth, the greater their needs will be – as the case of Ms Estrada illustrates.

The concept of reasonable needs is viewed in the context of the lifestyle the couple has enjoyed during marriage. Other factors include, for example, the age of the couple, the length of the marriage, the contributions that each has made to the marriage (including any future contributions) and the earning capacity or lack of it.

The foremost consideration is the welfare of any minor children and the Court will want to ensure that any division of the assets makes reasonable provision for the primary carer to look after the children with sufficient income to do so.

Calls for clearer guidance

The Estrada/Juffali divorce has sparked demands in some quarters for a reform of the law so that in all cases, there is greater certainty about how claims for spousal maintenance are determined – especially for those who do not have a large budget to spend on their divorce.

But despite calls for clearer guidance on what reasonable needs means, many divorce lawyers believe this is impractical and that the key consideration is that the law remains flexible and subjective, giving consideration to each case on its own factors and merits.

Concerns remain as to whether it is actually possible to define ‘reasonable needs’ as these inevitably vary from case to case. For instance, what counts as a reasonable ‘need’ for the ex-wife of a millionaire footballer is not going to be reasonable for the ex-wife of someone on a much lower income.

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