I do enjoy reading the online news in the morning, particularly when they are reporting on family law.

This morning’s Telegraph reports

Couples who divorce after only a brief marriage can no longer expect to have their assets split equally by default following an appeal court ruling

Energy trader Julie Sharp, 44, successfully challenged a ruling that her former husband was entitled to half of the fortune she built up during their four year marriage. arguing that that “because this was a short marriage he should not get half of the matrimonial pot”.

The Court of Appeal ruled in her favour, concluding that the £2,725 million  payout previously awarded to Robin Sharp, an IT consultant, should be reduced to £2 million.

Thereafter there are various quotes from leading lawyers in the area advising that “the ruling marked a “sea change” in how one of the basic principles of matrimonial law could now be applied to shorter marriages, creating yet another point of contention” or  “There was previously no legal distinction between a ‘short’ and a ‘long’ marriage, and therefore no defined point after which wealth generated should be shared”.

So far as the facts of the case are concerned,  the Sharps lived in a £2m home in Gloucester. They were both earning around £100,000 when they met in 2007 but during the relationship, Mrs Sharp also received bonuses totalling £10.5 million. They separated in 2013 and initially the judge ruled that the “principled outcome” was that Mr Sharp, should receive half of their total assets as no sufficient reason had been identified for departing from the established principle of equal division.

However the Court of Appeal said there was “no impediment” to depart from that principle, concluding that in a short, dual career marriage in which the couple had kept their finances separate, it was indeed “justified”.

The court ruled that Mr Sharp’s award should be reduced to £2 million, comprising a property valued at £1.1 million, to be transferred to him, plus a lump sum of £900,000.

But is this new law? Section 25(2)(d) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 directs the court to have regard to “the age of each party to the marriage and the duration of the marriage”.

Aside from the question of why those two specific issues are linked together in the same sub-section, statute is very clear in its wording. We must look at the actual “length of the marriage”. A short marriage is therefore a short marriage.

The common approach, particularly when considering younger couples, is for there to be an equal division of assets built up during the course of the marriage, although with assets brought into the marriage by one of the parties being treated differently.

I always refer to this situation as “keep what you had but divide what you made”

The law on this is quite old now, for example in Foster v Foster [2003] 2 FLR 299 the wife was awarded 61% of the assets of the marriage as she had contributed more at the outset. Those assets built up during the course of the marriage were effectively divided equally.

But the decision for Mr and Mrs Sharp goes much further than that – it changes my “keep what you had” to keep what you individually make during the marriage.

Not necessarily a “sea change” but certainly a change in the Court’s approach to these type of cases and a reminder that family law, divorce law in particular, is a complex and evolving area of law upon which specialist legal advice should always be sought.

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