Family lawyers are often reticent to discuss what is really going on in their practices – so Grant Thornton’s Matrimonial Survey provides a welcome opportunity to find out. This annual report from family lawyers, now in its ninth year, has become a must-read for those of us with an interest in what the accountancy firm calls the “divorce arena”.
Grant Thornton doesn’t publish the number of UK firms which take part, nor their locations, but has canvassed the opinions of 101 family lawyers based on their client work in 2010. This year, for the first time, I chose not to take part. I’ll admit that I was more interested to find out if our family law colleagues’ experiences concurred with the conclusions of Stowe Family Law’s recent in-house survey.
As the UK’s largest specialist family law practice, our firm acts for clients not just in London but around the country, providing its own snapshot of the “divorce arena”. Over the past 18 months, in the wake of the recession, we have noticed some striking new trends. As it turns out, they are spot on with the Matrimonial Survey findings.
Lawyers who participated in the survey were asked for the average value of total family assets distributed between divorcing parties. The results indicate that the number of high net worth divorce cases, involving couples with assets of between £4 million and £10 million, has dropped sharply. I imagine that many such couples have seen their asset values reduce dramatically, and that many were badly hit in the recession. When the going got tough… We have found that at present, wives in this wealthy bracket are more inclined to “sit it out”. As one said to me: “How can I manage on only £3 million instead of £10 million?” She could be in for a long wait.
At the same time, couples in other asset brackets continue to divorce in numbers. Of the family lawyers surveyed, 70 per cent put divorcing couples’ average family assets at between £250,000 and £2 million – exactly the same figure as last year. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising: the “squeezed middle classes” so beloved of certain newspapers really do exist. Economic circumstances have hit this group hard and if something has to give, it will often be the marriage.
For me, the most interesting results of all are the most common reasons given for marital breakdown. The extra-marital affair has topped the list every year since 2003. This year, however, just 25 per cent of respondents cited the extra-marital affair: the lowest level since the survey commenced. It has also been supplanted in the rankings, with 27 per cent of family lawyers opting for “growing apart / falling out of love”. This is quite a jump: in 2009, “growing apart / falling out of love” was selected by just six per cent of respondents.
These findings suggest that in the current climate, the extra-marital affair is a luxury too far – and I would agree. There is too much to do in rebuilding our shattered economy for wasting time elsewhere. Instead couples who are working hard to hold their heads above water, who grow apart are simply acknowledging their circumstances, rather than trying to play a blame game. Ask them if there is a chance of saving the marriage, and the answer comes back no. The decision has been made over a lengthy period, my clients tell me, and it is irreversible.
Over the past 18 months I have heard client after client comment either that their partner was playing no part in the commercial struggle, or had little comprehension of what it was like to go to sleep at night with the bank to face next day, or complain that their partner was too wrapped up in work and had neglected the family. These are couples who, exhausted by endeavours and feeling isolated and unsupported by one another, accept they are traveling in different directions and decide to part.
As for next year’s Matrimonial Survey results: much is likely to turn upon economic events, and for this reason I am reluctant to make any predictions, but I wonder if current trends will persist. Will there be any relief for the squeezed middle classes? Will those high-net-worth wives tire of the waiting game? Time will tell.