It is not often that a case threatens to truly change the landscape of divorce. But the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the split of Julie and Robin Sharp is being said by some to do just that.
The Sharp’s were married in 2008. Julie filed for divorce in December 2013 following the revelation that her husband had been having “a clandestine affair”.
He subsequently moved out of the former matrimonial home, a property in Gloucestershire worth over £2 million, in July 2014. The marriage was described by the High Court judge as “not so desperately short … as some, but still by no means lengthy”.
Although the couple were earning broadly similar amounts when they met in 2007, during the course of their relationship Mrs Sharp earned a series of substantial bonus payments totalling £10.5 million. By the time of their divorce, their total assets amounted to nearly £7 million, of which almost £5.5 million was generated over the course of the marriage.
Mrs Sharp argued that the vast majority of this was earned by her as a result of her sole endeavour at work. The judges heard that the Sharps had a "four-year marriage to separation", during which time they had no children and kept their finances separate
An initial ruling had granted Mr Sharp half of the couple’s total fortune, but yesterday, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision - making a legal distinction between ‘short’ and ‘long’ marriages for the first time.
It ruled that Mr Sharp should receive just £2 million, calculated on the basis of half of the value of their properties, an additional sum to reflect their standard of living during the marriage, his need for a modest capital fund from which to live and also “some share” in Mrs Sharp’s assets.
Lord Justice Macfarlane stated that Mr Sharp made no contribution to the source of Mrs Sharp’s bonuses and that he did not contribute more to the home life or welfare of the family. Mrs Sharp had "received bonuses way beyond the level of her previous earnings purely as a result of her employment and ... without any contribution, either domestic or business, from her husband."
So far, so simple. So why the uproar? And what does this latest decision mean for those contemplating a divorce following a short marriage?
The implications of this judgment could be significant, particularly for women following short marriages, where no children are involved.
In England and Wales, the starting point for divorce courts is one that seeks an equal division of a couple’s assets: 50/50. They do not tend to discriminate between the roles of home-maker and breadwinner, deeming both equally important.
Crucially, this is not (as it is in some other countries) limited to those assets acquired during the course of the relationship but can include everything owned by the parties. This is one of the reasons that London is known as “the divorce capital of the world and why it’s often the go-to jurisdiction for wives of rich husbands (or, indeed, vice versa).
However, the courts have always had the ability to depart from the presumption of 50/50 depending on the facts of the case. One such reason can be the duration of the relationship – which includes any cohabitation prior to marriage – where one party brings pre-acquired wealth to the marriage.
The difference with the Sharp’s case, however, is that the majority of wealth was generated by Mrs Sharp during the marriage.
Conventional wisdom in similar cases is that while “pre-marital” assets can be protected from being divided equally, assets built up during a short marriage should be split 50/50. Mr Sharp, as a fully supportive husband, should not be discriminated against on the basis that his earnings were less. Right?
That he has not been awarded half the total assets may, on the face of it, be of some concern, particular to those who are financially reliant on their partners.
So can couples who divorce after a short marriage no longer expect to have their assets divided equally?
The Court of Appeal judges have made it clear that the Sharp’s case is one of the “very small number of cases” where a departure from the equal sharing principles is justified. If the couple had had children, or if Mr Sharp had not himself had a good income, the outcome could have been very different.
Whether the ruling indicates a sea change in how the court views short marriages in the future - well, only time will tell.