Divorce - What Happens When Assets are Simply Insufficient to Meet Needs?

For every headline-grabbing 'big money' divorce case there are hundreds of others where a former couple's assets are simply insufficient to meet their reasonable needs. As a High Court ruling showed, judges take a gender-neutral approach to such cases, striving to achieve the fairest possible outcome.

The case concerned a couple whose marriage, at least on paper, lasted for about 18 years. For all but six of those years, however, they were married in name only. The marriage had, in effect, been over for well over a decade by the time the wife launched proceedings, seeking financial provision from the husband.

The wife, who was disabled and in need of care, lived with the teenage child of the marriage in private rented accommodation that she could barely afford. Dependent on benefits, her finances were extremely tight. The husband, who was approaching retirement age, lived in his own, mortgage-free home – which was worth about £410,000 – but had debts and only a modest pension and savings.

The wife's initial proposal was that the husband's home should be sold and that she should receive around three quarters of the proceeds so that she could rehouse herself and the child. In ruling on the matter, however, a judge found that proposal quite unrealistic in that the husband would be rendered homeless. He instead ordered the husband to make a lump-sum payment of £58,000 to the wife.

Dismissing the wife's appeal against that outcome, the Court noted that neither of their financial positions made for happy reading. The husband's home had been paid for largely with inherited money and was thus not a matrimonial asset. Even were it sold and the proceeds divided, in whatever proportion, there would be insufficient funds to rehouse either, let alone both, of them.

Although the wife was the child's primary carer, the marriage had ended many years ago and she and the husband had long been financially independent of each other. Taking into account his debts, the lump sum was about the maximum that the husband could raise without having to sell his home. Although the wife would not have the security of owning a home, she would have a significant lump sum that she could use as she wished. Overall, the judge had taken an entirely justified, gender-neutral approach to assessing their respective needs.

The Court noted that, in a case where assets were insufficient to meet reasonable needs, it was a great credit to lawyers on both sides that the legal costs of the proceedings were not ruinous. They were to be congratulated on the sensible and economic way in which the matter had been litigated.