Wealthy financier in record-breaking divorce

Divorce|November 28th 2014

The wife of a wealthy financier has been awarded £337 million in what is thought to be the largest ever divorce settlement in England.

It was a private hearing and the judgement has not yet been released.

From what we do know, Sir Chris Hohn and US-born wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn were married for more than 15 years and had four children together, before separating in 2012. After his highly successful career in finance, the couple’s assets had reached an estimated £700 million. They had also established the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, an international charity which works to “transform the lives of poor and vulnerable children in developing countries”. It is reported to have given away as much as $1 billion in donations. Arguments swirled around this fund – what was its true value and to what extent did it consist of assets which could properly be the subject of division between the couple?

Earlier this year, Mr Hohn had argued for a ban on media reporting of the couple’s divorce proceedings, and High Court Judge Mrs Justice Roberts issued a leading judgement which is now “the go to” in this difficult area of the law.

Her Ladyship considered the issue of privacy and media reporting in financial applications, and weighed up the balance to be made between privacy for the couple and  public interest in a case where the husband was claiming a ‘stellar contribution’.

Under English law, an equal division , known as the ‘sharing principle’, is the starting point in most financial settlements when the couple’s assets exceed the amount needed to meet the needs of each party and their children. But in exceptional cases, so-called ‘stellar contributions’ are recognised by the divorce courts – for example, in the 2005 divorce of advertising executive Sir Martin Sorrell, he was awarded 60 per cent of the matrimonial assets.

Her Ladyship allowed some of the facts of the hearing to be reported, including the sum to be received by the wife. And having considered the balance between the right of the media to report to the public at large, and the right of the husband and wife to respect for their private and family life, at least in the relation to their finances – weighed together with the overarching principle of open justice – she held that this balance fell firmly in favour of privacy in relation to financial matters.

She did not consider that breaching the confidentiality attached by both the parties and the courts to financial details would assist the public at large or enhance public understanding of the family justice system.

Back in 2000, the “yardstick of equality” set the ball rolling for equal asset splits. And of course London has been widely dubbed the divorce capital of the world, drawing in women intent on divorce from Russia, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and even Europe who would probably do far worse in their own countries.

But the ‘stellar contribution’ argument does provide a way out of the sharing principle for those super rich, ultra high net worth individuals who can persuasively attribute the specific magnitude of their success to their own genius. Need of course ceases to be an issue for the very wealthy – such disputes become a matter of principle I would imagine.

Until we see the judgement we cannot know the specifics of the judge’s reasoning. The figures cited are hazy and disputed.

We know that Sir Chris had argued that his wife was only entitled to 25 per cent of the couple’s assets, as he had made that “special contribution” to the couple’s wealth. His wife’s legal team, however, insisted that her contribution to the couple’s success should be equally recognised in the settlement.

Reports suggest that Mrs Cooper-Hohn is now considering an appeal which suggests that the settlement, as large as it is, was less than half the couple’s assets.

If the divorce had been heard in the Mrs Cooper-Hohn ‘s native United States, she could have expected a straight 50/50 split as the couple’s wealth was generated during their marriage.

I wonder. Is it right to recognise a “stellar contribution” at all? Is it right that a poorer man albeit a clever one could pay over half his wealth in a divorce whereas a man worth a fortune should be entitled to hang on to far more than half?

Photo by Darren Harmon via Flickr

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  1. Luke says:

    I wonder. Is it right to recognise a “stellar contribution” at all? Is it right that a poorer man albeit a clever one could pay over half his wealth in a divorce whereas a man worth a fortune should be entitled to hang on to far more than half?
    I don’t see this as the choice we should be looking at – it’s not an either/or situation, the wealthier party in each case pays far too much for that piece of paper where they sign on the dotted line of marriage. They are basically signing their assets away at the altar.
    What I don’t understand is why people who believe in marriage and family lawyers who rely on divorce cannot see that if the wealthier party continues to get heavily asset stripped in divorce then eventually marriage (and thus divorce) will die. It’s already starting to become much less popular.
    The pressure to marry from parents, peers – and yes, usually women – is immense but the marriage rate has already dropped dramatically and now it has become the norm to not be married I don’t see how such decisions can possibly help it survive.
    I think we have to change the mindset – marriage should not be regarded as a meal ticket.

  2. Andrew says:

    The yardstick of equality should apply to all divorces unless there is a pre-nup – in which case the pre-nup should be conclusive. In both cases there should be power to postpone during the minority of children but there should be no get-out because it would be “unjust”. In the case of a pre-nup the agreement makes it just; if there is none then as we used to say “equality is equity”.

    Obviously equality can only be a yardstick and in big-money cases there is scope for argument. And that is why Calderbank should be brought back to encourage sense and discourage greed or meanness.

    You know it all makes sense!

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