Divorce and snap decisions do not mix

Stowe Family Law|October 19th 2009

As solicitors, one of our most important functions is to supply excellent advice at all times.

Two of our trainees have recently qualified as fully-fledged solicitors. Sarah Barr-Young and Eleanor Webster, together with Andrea Essen, Claire Glaister and John Moore, have launched a free “Legal Clinic”, which mimics the free legal clinics that I used to run. Every Monday evening they offer appointments of 20 minutes apiece, providing complimentary legal advice on family and matrimonial matters. The clinics have already proved very popular.

I enjoy a weekly session with the Legal Clinic lawyers, called Think Outside the Box. Over coffee, we discuss the advice given at the Clinic. Why was it the best advice? What were the choices? I like the younger lawyers in the team to consider situations from various perspectives, come up with a range of advice and choose the option that suits the client best.

The decision to see a solicitor following the breakdown of a relationship can be a daunting one. Even though the fear of a future alone can tempt a spouse to cling to the past, hoping that the situation can be resolved, it can also prompt a hasty decisions about the future. If this describes your situation then I can assure you, you are not alone.

A few weeks ago at our free legal advice clinic, I saw a client who was in a difficult predicament. She had given up a very good career to care for her young children, in the belief that her husband would provide for the household. Unfortunately difficulties had arisen in the marriage and her husband had left the marital home.

The client painted a picture of financial difficulties.  Much of her information came from her husband, and she believed everything he said. He told her that the house would have to be sold, and that he could only afford to pay limited child maintenance.

At the same time she still hoped that her marriage would recover, and that her husband would return. In a bid to resolve her situation and appease her husband, she had already agreed to put the family home on the market in the hope of a quick sale. She thought that when the financial pressure eased, perhaps her husband would return.

The assets in this case were modest. If the wife moved out without any income of her own, she had little prospect of owning a house in the future. Instead, she could find herself spending what little capital she had in order to pay her rent.

Although I had every sympathy for this client, I had to give her the full range of legal advice. I advised her about issuing divorce proceedings, applying for interim maintenance and thereafter a full financial settlement. However, I advised her to do nothing immediately. I suggested that she stay in the house and make a decision about the future of her marriage.  I advised strongly against selling the house before that decision was made.

Unfortunately this lady could not see beyond the sale and the possible reconciliation. She was disinclined to consider her options with an eye to the future.

In six months time, if her husband does not return, she may well find herself regretting the snap decision to sell the house. By then it may well be too late.  The husband will have moved onwards and upwards, while the wife struggles to survive on a pittance.

During my training contract I was often involved in cases in which clients were eager to settle at an early stage, without really looking to the future. They feared incurring legal costs or upsetting their spouse or children.  They risked entering agreements without full and frank disclosure, or accepting a deal when they were entitled to more.

In such situations it is extremely important for clients to take legal advice. A solicitor will not be blinded by the emotional trauma of the marriage breakdown, and  will consider the consequences of  decisions that will affect the rest of the client’s life.

It is so difficult to separate  emotions from practical decisions, and it is commonly said that the breakdown of a relationship is like bereavement. People go through a huge range of emotions including denial, anger and shock, but eventually they will accept. It can be dfficult to make practical decisions during such an emotional time. It takes time to recover and there is a lot to be said for a “cooling off” period, during which parties can readjust before making important decisions about their futures. The rawness of emotion after a relationship breakdown and the attachment that clients still feel towards their spouse or partner can often inhibit clear judgement.

My client was surprised that I had advised her not to make a decision that focused only upon the short term. However, short-term options are not always the best options long-term. She was pleased that we were not trying to push her into court to “make money.” She decided that she would take some time out to think about what she was going to do. Ultimately she may return. If she does, it will be on her terms and not because she has been bullied when she is so obviously in an emotionally vulnerable state.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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