Landmark divorce ruling says length of marriage should affect assets split

By Lenore Rice

A Court of Appeal ruling has been described as a "sea change" to how a basic principle of asset division in matrimonial law is applied in divorce cases, after it was ruled that the length of the marriage should be a factor in how assets were divided.

There was previously no distinction made between a short or long marriage when it came to sharing generated wealth, and leading divorce solicitors have voiced their concerns that the latest ruling confuses what was once a rigid rule.

The ruling was delivered after energy trader Julie Sharp appealed a court ruling awarding her ex-husband half of the assets she had accumulated during their 4 year marriage. She argued that the £2.725million payout to Robin Sharp was too generous as the marriage was short, they had no children, and there was no element of Mr Sharp making sacrifices to facilitate her career progression. Both parties were earning similar salaries when they married in 2007 but Mrs Sharp received bonuses as part of her job, totalling £10.5million. The couple had kept their finances entirely separate during the marriage.

Lord Justice McFarlane ruled that Mrs Sharp had "received bonuses way beyond the level of her previous earnings purely as a result of her employment and ... without any contribution, either domestic or business, from her husband." He added that "this is not a case where, save in the final year, the husband is said to have contributed more to the home life or welfare of the family than the wife."

The Court of Appeal ruled that Mr Sharp's award should be reduced from £2.725million to £2million, made up of a lump sum of £900,000 and a property worth £1.1million. Lord Justice McFarlane said that they felt "no impediment" to depart from the established principle of equal division in a case involving a short, dual career marriage where the couple had kept their finances separate. Anticipating concern at the impact of the decision, the judge clarified that the judgment was not intended to disrupt the general principle of equal division that should "be taken in the vast majority of cases".

Despite Lord Justice McFarlane's attempt to minimise any concerns amongst the family law community, a number of divorce solicitors have already commented that the ruling raises significant questions about the principle of equal division of assets. Andrew Newbury of Hall Brown Family Law said the ruling "is something of a sea change in how that concept of fairness should best be applied in relation to short marriages in particular." Other divorce solicitors have called for clarity on what constitutes a "short marriage".

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