Should assets be shared equally even after a short marriage?
There is no straightforward yes or no answer to the question of whether a couple’s assets should be shared equally between them if they are divorcing after a short marriage. Typically a short marriage is considered by the court to be 5 years or less and the division of assets is decided upon a number of factors including how the assets were acquired, who brought them into the marriage and how they have been treated by the parties during the marriage.
The recent case of Julie and Robin Sharp has brought this area of law into focus again as to when it is fair and reasonable for assets not to be divided equally between a divorcing couple. Mr and Mrs Sharp were both in their 40s and had no children. Their marriage lasted 4 and a half years and during that time they continued with their own careers and maintained separate finances. Mrs Sharp was a successful financial trader and her husband worked in IT. Their total matrimonial assets were worth approximately £5.45 million and the first award made by the High Court ordered that the assets be divided equally between the parties.
However, Mrs Sharp appealed, arguing that the duration of a marriage is still, by statute, a factor the courts should specifically consider when making a final order. As a consequence fairness is likely to dictate a different approach to that of equal sharing of all matrimonial assets depending on the length of the marriage. The Court of Appeal accepted her arguments and reduced the husband’s award to £2 million; the Lordships considering that the husband should receive 50% of the value of the parties’ two properties (circa £1.3m) and an additional award of £700,000 to reflect the combination of three factors:
(a) standard of living enjoyed during the marriage;
(b) the need for a modest capital fund in order to live in the property that he is to retain; and
(c) some share in the assets held unilaterally by the wife.
This case highlights that the Court has a discretion on the level of award that it can give to each party and will consider all factors including the length of the marriage, whether the couple have children, whether both are in full time employment and whether they keep at least a proportion of their finances separate. The Courts will not apply an automatic or blind application of 50/50 in every case as all the circumstances of the case must be considered.
Amanda Erskine is a solicitor in the Family department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors.