Last month, the Court of Appeal handed down an important decision about how the family courts should divide matrimonial assets built up during a short marriage or civil partnership.

In this particular appeal brought by Julie Sharp there were no children, the cohabitation and marriage taken together were short, both parties earned their own money and had their own careers and they kept their finances separate.

After a marriage and cohabitation lasting only six years, Mrs Sharp asked the Court of Appeal to reconsider the original award which gave her former husband a settlement of 50% of the total matrimonial assets and she succeeded.

The Court of Appeal reduced Mr Sharp’s settlement down from £2.725m to £2m out of a matrimonial pot of £5.45m [or down to approximately 38% of the matrimonial assets] and provided guidance as to how the lower courts should distribute assets of short marriages which have broken down.

The length of the marriage or civil partnership is a factor that the courts are obliged to consider when deciding upon the division of assets and liabilities on divorce because the law specifically requires it to do so.

Mrs Sharp’s argued in the Court of Appeal that it was unfair for the lower divorce court to split the assets on a straight forward 50/50 basis because her marriage was a short one and that a fairer outcome would be to depart from the starting point of equally dividing the matrimonial assets on divorce and to give her a greater than 50% share of the assets.

The Court of Appeal agreed and accordingly reduced Mr Sharp’s settlement award by £725,000. The court justified this on the basis that he would receive 50% of the value of the parties’ two properties which were valued at about £1.3 million together with an additional award made to reflect:

  • the standard of living enjoyed during marriage
  • the need for a modest capital fund in order to live in the property that he was to keep,
  • some share in the assets held solely by Mrs Sharp

The decision means that there will be even more discretion, and therefore uncertainty, about the impact the length of the marriage or civil partnership will have on how matrimonial assets are to be divided by the divorce courts.

There is likely to be a greater focus in future on the date cohabitation started in an attempt to shorten the length of the marriage and to argue there should be a departure from the starting point of splitting assets equally.

What continues to remain uncertain, however, is how short a marriage has to be before a court will view it as being short and when the principle of sharing assets equally bites as the starting point for distribution of matrimonial assets during relationships.

For further information relating to the points raised in this article, please contact Director and Head of Family and Divorce, Chris Burns.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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