Picture of 2 peoples shadow holding hands

Judge Rejects Idea That Childless Spouses Are Less Committed

One of the factors set out under section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 that the Court must consider when deciding on financial settlement matters is the duration of the marriage. In the recent case of E v L [2021] EWFC 60, The Hon. Mr Justice Mostyn considered an application for financial remedies in a short marriage where the parties had no children. The matrimonial property was valued at around £9.2 million.

Background to the decision

The husband and wife were both in their early 60s. They had begun their relationship in 2015, married in 2017, and separated in 2019. The husband was a highly successful production manager for live music events and had an interest in six businesses. The wife looked after the home and received income from her London buy-to-let property. A dispute arose regarding the value of one of the husband’s companies. The wife sought a financial settlement of £5.5 million.

Her husband offered £600,000.

The husband argued that because the marriage was of short duration and there were no children, there was no case for the equal sharing principle.

The Judge’s decision

When setting out his decision, Mr Justice Mostyn made it clear, childlessness was irrelevant to whether there should be a departure from the application of the equal sharing principle.

He put it to the husband’s Counsel:

“The sharing principle looks at the value accrued during the span of the marital relationship and, deeming the parties’ incommensurable contributions to that accrual to be of equal worth, divides that value equally. Why should the presence of a child make a difference?”

The husband responded that the “having of children denotes a completely different category of commitment.”

Mr Justice Mostyn stated that he “fundamentally disagreed” with the above reasoning and then stated:

“In applying the sharing principle it is not merely invidious, but extremely dangerous, for the court to attempt an evaluation of the quality of a marriage or of the arrangements made within it, as to do so will almost inevitably trigger subconscious discriminatory practices. It is for this reason that the doctrine of special contribution has to all intents and purposes been consigned to history.”

This judgment (thankfully) reinforces that it is not the court’s place to delve into the minutiae of a divorcing couple’s private life. Not only would this be contrary to public policy but the sheer time it would take to address such matters would overwhelm a system that is already bursting at the seams. The choice to have children is highly personal and sometimes beyond a person’s control for medical reasons or otherwise. Given the huge fertility struggles that many couples face, it would be entirely unfair to compound that struggle by deeming a marriage somewhat ‘lesser’ in the event of a divorce. That aside, in the present case, children were presumably not something that would have been on the horizon given the parties ages and thus is of little relevance to their supposed commitment to one another.

It may be the case that a ‘childless’ marriage leads to the application of the sharing principle because there are sufficient resources to meet the parties’ individual needs. However, as is often the case, the presence of dependent children will often transform the case into a needs one.

Therefore, the court does make an indirect consideration of whether there are children (albeit only dependent ones) when deciding which of the principles from White v White is to be applied.
Regarding the short duration of the marriage, Mr Justice Mostyn concluded that the short-marriage exception was only likely to apply where both parties were financially active and independently so. There was no logical reason to draw a distinction between accrual of assets over a short period and an accrual over a long period.

“For my part I would say (as I have said before when talking about the rarity of sharing of non-matrimonial property) that a case where there can be a legitimate non-discriminatory unequal sharing of matrimonial property earned in a short marriage will be as rare as a white leopard. “

Mr Justice Mostyn explained that the reason for the rarity was making any exception in relation to money earned during the marriage means placing a higher value on financial contributions than those of other contributions. This would result in discrimination and go against the key decisions of White v White [2001] 1 A,C. 596 and Miller v Miller McFarlane v McFarlane [2006] UKHL 24 which established that the concept of equal sharing was the starting point in financial settlement cases irrespective of one party’s role as the breadwinner and the other party’s role as the homemaker.

What does this case mean for wealthy divorcing couples?

This case provides clarification for two issues relating to the marriage of short duration consideration under

section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973:

a) The fact that the marriage was childless has no bearing whatsoever on the parties’ commitment to the marriage and should not be included in the Court’s considerations, and

b) The Court should not distinguish between wealth accrued over a short time and that over a long period.

It is important to note that the Court may still choose to depart from the equal sharing principle when considering property and assets accrued before the nuptials in the case of a short marriage.

The wife in E v L eventually received £1.5 million which equalled half of the equity value of the husband’s business during the period between January 2016 to the date of trial). This was significantly less than the £5.5 originally sought but clearly an improvement on the husbands offer. The husband still walked away with 79% of the £9.2 million disclosed at trial.

Edwards Family Law is a niche London-based firm specialising in high-net-worth divorce and international family law. To find out more about financial orders on divorce, please phone +44 (0)20 3983 1818 or email contact@edwardsfamilylaw.co.uk. All enquiries are treated in the strictest confidence.