So-called ‘big money’ divorces may grab the headlines, but lower-value disputes can often be the hardest to resolve. In a case on point, a family judge laboured to meet the reasonable needs of a divorcing couple whose debts far exceeded their modest savings.
The couple’s marriage lasted almost 30 years, yielding three children who had grown to adulthood. Whilst the wife worked full time, the father’s primary role was that of a stay-at-home parent, looking after the home and children. They lived in a housing association property and, although they each had a few hundred pounds in savings, their combined liabilities came to almost £20,000.
Following their divorce, the husband argued that he should receive 40 per cent of the wife’s net income, plus a substantial share of her private pension. For her part, the wife sought a clean break. She asserted that it would not be appropriate to order her to pay spousal maintenance to the husband and that his claim should be limited to 35 per cent of her pension.
Ruling on the matter, the judge noted that, in their differing roles, husband and wife each made equally important contributions to the marriage. The starting point was therefore that any marital assets should be equally divided between them. Due to health difficulties, the husband was currently unable to work and his future earning capacity was questionable. However, his housing needs were currently met by his tenancy of a local authority-owned property.
The judge found that the husband’s assessment of his financial needs was wholly excessive. He had failed to show that his very modest needs could not be met from his current income. The division he proposed would not be fair to the wife, whose essential outgoings were greater than his. Were he to receive even a small proportion of her earned income, his entitlement to means-tested benefits might also be compromised.
The judge noted, however, that it was a long marriage during which the husband prioritised the breadwinner wife’s career and earning potential over his own. That meant that he did not have the same opportunity to build up a pension pot. Whilst ruling that it was not a case for spousal maintenance, and that there should be a clean break, the judge ordered that the husband should receive a 50 per cent share of the wife’s pension.