In the event of divorce, successful businesspeople are wont to argue that their stellar financial contributions should be reflected in an unequal division of assets. As a High Court ruling showed, however, such contentions very rarely succeed in displacing the general rule that marital wealth should be split down the middle.
The case concerned a businessman who was a board member and driving force of a company that had been sold for £400 million a few years after he separated from his wife. He received about £250 million of that sum. The wife’s principal role during the marriage was as homemaker and carer for their children.
After the wife petitioned for divorce, the husband proposed that she should receive a lump sum of £83.3 million, or roughly 30 per cent of their overall assets, which were valued at more than £280 million. He contended that his special contribution to the family finances justified a departure from equality. She, however, criticised that argument as inherently discriminatory and sought a full half share.
Ruling in the wife’s favour, the Court found that the equality principle prevailed. The husband was a very good businessman who had done very well indeed. However, his contribution was not so wholly exceptional as to demand, in fairness, that he should receive the lion’s share of the available assets. His achievement was enormous but did not involve making billions of pounds.
In obtaining such a high price for the company there were elements of windfall and being in the right place at the right time. The company had at one point almost failed and the wife had shared in his business risks and worries. Her childcare responsibilities were particularly onerous given his long absences on business. His argument that most of the value realised on the company’s sale was attributable to his post-separation endeavours also fell on fallow ground.