Settlements In Short Marriages

28 May 2024 | Lisa Pepper
Marriage rings

Table of Contents

A Marriage is a Marriage — Even If It’s Short and Childless

When deciding who gets what in a divorce, the court strives to achieve fairness, which in most cases starts and ends with needs.

The first consideration for the court will always be the welfare of any children. After that, the court will look at several factors, in no particular order, to decide what is fair. These are known as the “s25 factors” under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. They include the financial resources of the parties, their financial needs, ages of the parties, the standard of living they enjoyed during the marriage, and the contributions they made to the marriage, among other things.

Sharing was articulated by Lord Nicholls in the case of White v White [2000] – he emphasised the need to avoid discrimination in favour of the income provider and against the home-maker. Later cases confirmed that in the majority of cases the assets accumulated during the marriage would be shared equally.

Marriage length is one of the factors that the court takes into consideration. To most people, this seems fair. If you ask anyone on the street, they will probably say that a short marriage should not result in a 50-50 split of the family’s assets in the same way that a long-term marriage would, especially if there are no children involved.

However, the legal approach to this is more complicated.

The recent case of E v L [2021] EWFC 60 illustrates how the court views this particular issue.

What is a short marriage?

There isn’t a legal definition of short marriage, but there are benchmarks. In 2022, the median duration of marriages that ended in divorce was 12.9 years for opposite-sex couples in England and Wales. Therefore, anything below five or six years may be a good yardstick.

However, it’s important to note that the clock frequently doesn’t start from the beginning of the marriage. The court will consider any period of cohabitation before marriage. This means that a couple who lived together for several years before getting married are likely to be treated as having been in a longer relationship than just the length of their legal marriage.

Do different principles apply to short marriages?

Before the case of E v L, the leading case on financial settlements in short marriages was Sharp v Sharp. Mr and Mrs Sharp had been in a relationship for seven-and-a-half years, and married for six of those years, when they decided to divorce. They had no children together, and were both earning around £100,000 per year when they started their relationship. The wife then entered a period of unparalleled professional success, receiving bonuses in excess of £10 million.

The couple owned two properties together, but all their other assets were held separately.

Deciding that the equal sharing principle should apply, the first instance Judge awarded Mr Sharp 50% of the total matrimonial assets. Mrs Sharp appealed the decision. She argued that she earned her wealth under her own steam, without her husband’s help, and that a genuinely short, dual career, childless marriage, where few of the finances had been pooled, should justify a relaxation of the sharing principle.

The Court of Appeal agreed. They scaled down Mr Sharp’s award to a sum that met his needs and would allow him to manage the home he was retaining as part of the divorce settlement.

E v L — a reality check for couples in short marriages

In E v L, the court took a different view. In this case, the husband was a successful music production manager and the wife was a homemaker. The couple met in 2015, got engaged in 2016, married in 2017, and divorced in 2019. The husband provided financial support to his wife from the time they started a relationship.

During the financial remedy proceedings, the wife sought a lump sum equal to half the matrimonial assets, which she calculated at £5.5 million. The husband wanted to pay a far lesser amount. Following Sharp v Sharp and on the basis that the marriage was short and childless, he argued that £600,000 would be enough to meet his ex-wife’s needs.

The judge, Mr Justice Mostyn, rejected the husband’s argument and awarded the wife a little over £1.5 million on a clean-break basis, which compared to half of the assets the couple had built up during the marriage. He gave the following reasons for his decision:

  • On the couple’s childlessness – Mr Justice Mostyn signalled his distaste at the idea of a court judging the quality of a marriage based on the fact that a child was not born during it. He could not see why having children or not having children would make any difference to the application of the equal sharing principle and said it would be discriminatory to make such a distinction.
  • On the lack of marriage length – The Judge saw no logic in focusing on whether the couple’s assets were accrued over a long time or a short time. There inevitably will be fewer assets accrued in a two-year marriage than a marriage which spans 20 years, but what is accrued during a marriage should be shared equally regardless of the marriage’s duration.
  • Departures from the equal sharing principle will be extremely rare – Mr Justice Mostyn acknowledged that there would be instances where a short marriage would lend itself to an unequal sharing of the matrimonial pot, but those instances would be “as rare as a white leopard.” Sharp v Sharp is a good example of this rare exception where both partners were “financially active and independently so,” where the finances were kept separate and one party generated all of the non-family wealth. However, those criteria did not apply to the facts of this case.

What are the implications for short marriages?

For couples who have been married for a short time, there are three main takeaways from this Judgment:

  • Not having children will not automatically reduce the share of assets either party takes away from a marriage.
  • The length of a marriage alone does not impact the sharing principle. While much will depend on the specific circumstances of your case, it is likely the wealth that has been accrued in your limited time together will be shared equally.
  • Providing that sharing the matrimonial ‘pot’ meets needs, then even in a short marriage equal sharing can apply, a marriage with features that justify departing from the equal sharing looking like; both parties working, no children, a huge disparity of financial contribution.

If E v L highlights anything, it’s that a pre-nuptial agreement may be the best tool for couples who wish to have greater control over their financial arrangements in case of a divorce. Get good legal advice from the outset, as what you may think is a fair division of money may not be seen as such by the courts.

Speak to a specialist lawyer

To speak with one of our solicitors, contact us by:

  • Filling in our online enquiry form; or
  • Calling us on 020 3411 0531

Share this article

Contact

Contact us today

For a free initial conversation call 020 7485 8811

Email us Send us an email and we’ll get back to you






    More from LisaVIEW ALL

    1. parent and child
      17.6.2024

      What is Early Neutral Evaluation?

      Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE) is a form of Non-Court Dispute Resolution where the separated couple invite a neutral third party...

      Read more
    2. green house
      14.6.2024

      How Does Divorce Affect Our Mortgage?

      Can you keep a joint mortgage after divorce? From a mortgage lender’s perspective your divorce does not affect your...

      Read more
    3. money
      13.5.2024

      Impact Of Extended Family Wealth On Divorce

      Can the Wealth of Extended Family Affect Your Divorce Outcomes? While there is no fundamental legal difference between a high-net-worth...

      Read more
    4. osbornes hampstead
      16.4.2024

      NCDR Rules Guide Couples Away From Court

      What is Non-Court Dispute Resolution (NCDR)? NCDR is the current buzz word in the family law world, following recent rule...

      Read more
    5. Perjury
      17.1.2024

      What Happens If You Lie in Family Court?

      Honesty is the backbone of the English court system.  Witnesses in court take an oath that they will tell the...

      Read more
    6. Hampstead Hill Gardens
      21.12.2023

      Financial Remedy Orders Explained

      It is common for disagreements to arise over the finances during a divorce, even if you are on good terms...

      Read more
    7. field of flowers
      14.12.2023

      What is Parental Alienation?

      Sometimes, a child may turn against one of their parents due to the other parent’s manipulation or influence. This...

      Read more
    8. divorced man with empty wallet
      4.12.2023

      My spouse is going bankrupt. Will it affect...

      Divorce and Bankruptcy In 2022, more than 1 in 10 businesses reported a moderate-to-severe risk of insolvency. More than one in five (22%) of...

      Read more
    9. separation agreement
      29.11.2023

      What is a Separation Agreement?

      Introduction to separation agreements A separation agreement is a document that can be prepared  when you want to stop living...

      Read more
    10. Coercive Control
      23.11.2023

      What is Coercive Control?

      Coercive Control Law Domestic abuse comes in many forms. When it involves a campaign of threats, intimidation and psychological manipulation,...

      Read more
    11. child maintenance
      16.8.2023

      Child Maintenance for High Earners

      How much should be paid? When separating or divorcing parents cannot agree the amount of child maintenance to be paid, (...

      Read more
    12. Prenup agreement and gavel
      7.12.2022

      Judge ignores pre-nuptial agreement but factors in non-matrimonial...

      Case Law One of the reasons I am still passionate about family law, after 20 years in the field, is that...

      Read more
    13. chambers logo
      24.10.2022

      Thirty lawyers at Osbornes noted by Legal 500 2023

      Osbornes Law has once again been ranked in The Legal 500 2023. The Legal 500 is an independent legal guide which ranks leading...

      Read more
    14. pension pot
      30.8.2022

      Pension sharing on divorce

      What is the new procedure for pension sharing? Pensions are one of the biggest assets of a marriage, yet many...

      Read more
    15. door knocker
      30.8.2022

      What is a transfer of equity?

      Transfer of equity in divorce Transfer of equity refers to the process of transferring part or all of a property...

      Read more
    16. people holding cups
      30.8.2022

      Do You Have To Go To Court For...

      Can you divorce without going to court? If your divorce is uncontested and there are no disputes over issues such...

      Read more
    17. woman hand open empty purse
      6.5.2022

      My ex has cut me off during divorce

      Can my spouse cut me off financially? Unfortunately, it is far too common that when clients say it’s over,...

      Read more
    18. Close up of african american man with calculator
      6.5.2022

      Divorce Loans

      How the Court views loans from parents during divorce A frequent issue in financial divorce cases is a loan from...

      Read more
    19. Business people group handshake in office
      12.4.2022

      Mediation or Arbitration: What’s best for my...

      Is arbitration or mediation better in a divorce? Few divorcing couples want to end up in court, which is why...

      Read more
    20. husband signing decree of divorce
      11.4.2022

      Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) for Divorce

      What is FDR for Divorce? Traditionally, a divorce financial settlement is dealt with by mutual agreement between the parties or...

      Read more
    21. family in poppy field
      18.1.2022

      6 cases that shape a private children dispute

      Family disputes involving children can be particularly emotive, which is why our expert children lawyers work tirelessly to understand how...

      Read more
    22. Unhappy Couple
      9.12.2021

      Are irreconcilable differences grounds for divorce?

      If you have come across this article, it may have resulted from an online search to see if you and...

      Read more
    23. Twitter app
      9.11.2021

      Keeping social media out of divorce proceedings

      We’ve recently seen the playing out on Twitter and Instagram of the high-profile separation of actor Ioan Gruffudd and...

      Read more
    24. 9.11.2021

      Case Law for Fair Divorce Settlements

      Cases that shape a ‘fair’ divorce settlement Part of what makes our divorce lawyers experts in their field is knowing...

      Read more

    VIEW ALL