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How short does a marriage have to be to count as short?

An Appeal Court ruling that couples who divorce after short, childless marriages cannot expect to have their marital assets split down the middle by default is likely to have a considerable impact on family law.

Senior judges ruled that Robin Sharp, who’d also had an affair, could not claim half his ex-wife Julie’s fortune after four years of marriage and sliced £725,000 from his original award. They ruled he was not entitled to an equal share of the assets and only deserved a £2 million slice of the £5.45 million family fortune.

This case challenged a longstanding “sharing principle” in the courts in which assets acquired during a marriage are split 50:50. Ever since a major ruling in 2000, it has generally been accepted that assets should be split equally, regardless of how long a marriage might actually have lasted.

Mrs Sharp’s lawyers successfully argued that all the wealth stemmed from their energy trader client, who had earned £10.5 million in bonuses in five years, and that to split them equally was unfair because the couple had experienced a “short, childless, dual career marriage”.

Questions

Although the circumstances of every divorce will continue to be considered individually, the case does raise a number of questions.

For example, how long does a marriage have to be to be defined as short and at exactly what stage is someone entitled to share the wealth generated by their spouse?

It also raises issues about how the concept of fairness should best be applied in relation to short marriages in particular.

Importance of a pre-nuptial agreement

What the case does do, however, is highlight the importance of making sure you have a pre-nuptial agreement which clearly sets out your intentions on divorce.

This is particularly the case for couples with significant pre-existing assets and established careers where one of the parties is likely to be making a greater financial contribution to the marriage than the other.

By Wards Solicitors’ Partner, Alison Bradley, Head of Family Law and Divorce.

Wards Solicitors has an experienced team of eight family and divorce law specialist solicitors ready to help and 11 local offices for face to face meetings.

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