Holding the purse strings

Divorce|October 4th 2012

This just in from Hollywood: it’s officially all over between all over between 33 year old actress/ model Mena Suvari and her second husband, an Italian-Canadian promoter called Simone Sestito.

Just another in an ever-lengthening line of celebrity divorces? Of course. But one section of the Belfast Telegraph report makes it stand out from the more routine Hollywood bulletins. Mr Sestito, who is eight years younger than the actress, initially asked for $17,151 a month as part of the settlement.

This was later dropped according to the story, but the fact that the request was made at all shows where the financial power lay in the relationship.

Mr Sestito is certainly not alone. We recently took a look  at the rancorous divorce of British soul singer Seal from German model Heidi Klum. Reports suggested that Seal also demanded a large payout from his far wealthier wife, although like Sestito, he later backed down.

These demands may not have been followed through but they are a reminder of an often forgotten aspect of financial divorce law: in both the US and the UK, it is gender-neutral. So embedded is the image of the woman as the recipient of financial support from her former husband that many people believe men have no rights at all if their marriage to a wealthier partner comes to an end. That is not the case. What matters from a legal point of view is the comparative wealth of the two spouses, not their gender.

One man who did receive  a significant from his former wife was British film director Guy Ritchie. When the couple went their separate ways in 2008, Ritchie, according to Madonna’s US spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg, received a settlement of around £50 million from the legendary pop singer, a sum which includes the value of  Aschcombe House, a Georgian estate in Wiltshire. This is thought to be the largest divorce settlement ever paid to a man and is twice the amount received by Heather Mills on her divorce from the similarly wealthy Sir Paul McCartney.

Other celebrities reported to have made large payouts to former husbands include singer Britney Spears.

But this is not a phenomenon confined to the super-rich and famous. Earlier this year I was interviewed for a feature in The Times about the rise of the ‘female breadwinner’ – the increasing number of woman who earn more than their husbands, and who are then amazed to find their harder-up husbands demanding 50 per cent of their assets. In the article I expressed amazement at their amazement. Some, it seems, may genuinely have thought that men have no rights in this situation.

US lawyers report a similar situation across the Atlantic, where the stigma associated with men asking for alimony seems to be disappearing.

What struck me about so many of the responses to the Times article is something I saw again in the ABC News article: how shocked and resentful so many women seem to feel when their ex-husbands ask for money. But why? If you are wealthy or successful woman and you marry a man with fewer resources, you will have precisely the same financial responsibilities as men have had to bear for many years. That is the price of equality.
When a marriage crumbles and divorce looms, the law is concerned with one thing, and one thing only: fairness. The financially dependent partner in a marriage may not be bringing home a huge pay cheque but will almost certainly have made other important contributions to the household, even economic sacrifices such as giving up work to look after children, and it is entirely right and proper that this should be recognised in the divorce proceedings. Whether they are a man or a woman.

Author: Marilyn Stowe

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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