Fighting over the frying pan
There is nothing quite so satisfying as a celebrity divorce. There is a pleasing sense of schadenfreude in knowing that people for whom everything appears so wonderful and perfect can have as miserable and depressing a time as the rest of us. We can also gloat in having known that it would never work because ‘she’s so talented and he’s, well, a bodyguard’ and because getting hitched only weeks after meeting usually turns out not to be the good idea it seemed at the time.
I do wonder just how rich some of these celebs (most of whom I can’t name) would be if they stopped getting married and divorced all the time. And how much poorer their lawyers would be. Fortunately for your predominantly American celeb, and unlike in England, no-fault divorce is available in every state (amazing given the otherwise fundamentalist approach of some of them), which at least saves them a bit of time.
Even though divorce is no longer shameful and it has little or no impact on your social status (in some cases it might even be said to enhance it), to get divorced in England someone has to be to blame. The only no-fault option means enduring two years’ separation with consent or five years’ separation without consent. If you can’t wait that long, you’ll have to prove adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion.
This gives rise to some spectacularly bizarre divorce petitions. Like the woman who sued for divorce because her husband insisted she dressed and spoke like a Klingon; or the man who declared his wife had repeatedly and maliciously served him his least favourite meal, tuna casserole (the smell of tinned fish is fairly offensive, but even I wouldn’t call it grounds for divorce).
There was the respondent who ‘insisted that his pet tarantula, Timmy, slept in a glass next to the matrimonial bed’, the man whose wife flirted with any builder or tradesman ‘declaring that she could not stop herself’ and, my all-time favourite, the woman who said her husband had not spoken to her for 15 years, communicating only by Post-It note.
Way back in 1996 the government discussed introducing no-fault divorce, but the idea was dropped because of fears it would make divorce too easy. But it can’t be that hard now, with one in three marriages failing by their 15th year, 40% of marriages ending in divorce and 70% of second (so much for being older and wiser).
On the other hand, by requiring couples to apportion blame and designating the process as judicial rather than purely administrative, it takes time and, inevitably, costs money. It also encourages acrimony and it seems quarrelling couples are increasingly determined to stop at nothing to grab what they can out of their failing marriage, often just out of spite.
One couple ran up a legal bill of more than £2,000 arguing over a set of bed linen. Lawyers have also reported arguments over a suit of armour, dustbins in the shape of Disney characters and even frying pans, smoked salmon and expensive mustard. One couple, both lawyers, managed to squander most of their significant fortune paying other lawyers to argue over their assets.
If all this is a potentially expensive inconvenience, getting a clear idea as to what you can expect from your divorce settlement is about as likely as a lifelong celebrity marriage. The Law Commission has described divorce laws as so ‘incomplete and uninformative’ and ‘inaccessible and difficult to discover’ giving judges no proper guidance about the fairest way to divide a couple’s assets.
There are no clear rules on how to split pre-marital assets and no legal definition of the financial needs of a spouse or clarity as to the extent divorcees should carry on supporting each other. No wonder judges in the family court have been compared to a bus driver, who has been told he has to drive the bus and how to do it, but not where to go or why he is going there.
Last month, the Law Commission launched a consultation into reforming the divorce laws, which haven’t changed since 1969 when most women gave up work when they got married and a prenup was probably just an agreement about what time the husband would get his dinner on the table.
Following the ruling in favour of German heiress Katrin Radmacher in 2010 giving force to properly-drafted prenups for the first time, their use has been on the increase. As well as considering whether prenups should be explicitly recognised in law, the consultation looks at the driving principle in divorce: should it be meeting the needs of the less well-off spouse or assuming equal shares based on contribution to the success of the marriage?
I oversimplify it greatly, but it’s a tricky business. Our family legal system of ‘bespoke settlements’ has made London the divorce capital of the world where the less-well-off spouses of the rich and famous file for divorce in the hope of achieving a more generous award than they would likely get in their own country.
It is almost certainly impractical and undesirable to force every couple into a one-size-fits-all formula, but it is also difficult to accept the status quo as the only, or best, option. Ultimately, the debate rests on whether the Law Commission opts for a divorce law that offers a sense of clarity of consistency, or one which enables the superstar divorce lawyers of the super-wealthy to flourish.