Over the weekend a certain national newspaper ran a story under the headline:
“Men ‘bullied’ out of generous divorce settlements by breadwinning wives”
It was a bit of a non-story actually, created to fill a few column inches, and not really telling us anything we didn’t already know. Still, I thought it deserved a comment from yours truly.
Despite that headline, the story began by informing us that: “Men are being awarded more generous divorce payouts with some also receiving ongoing payments from their ex-wives”. We are then told that the reason for this is that: “women are now the breadwinner in an increasing number of families.” Wow, who knew? However, and this is the fly in the ointment of this brave new world, the story goes on to tell us that: “lawyers believe many more husbands are missing out on money they are entitled to as their wives “bully” them out of making a claim”.
Okay, let’s go back to first principles. The law in relation to financial settlements on divorce is gender-neutral. It favours neither wives nor husbands. A quick glance at section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 will confirm that, contrary to what some believe, parliament did not instruct the courts to “give everything to the wife and leave the husband penniless”. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that the courts do, on occasion, decide that it is appropriate to award more of the pot to the husband than to the wife.
It should also come as no surprise in 2017 that, yes, wives do sometimes earn more than their husbands. I know that that revelation may sit a little uncomfortably with some patriarchs (such as that awful Polish MEP who was recently filmed saying that women “must earn less than men because they are weaker, smaller and less intelligent”) but it has, in fact, been the case for some while now, and it is becoming more frequent.
So, that some men are being awarded more is hardly news. It is also hardly news to say that their (former) spouses are doing all they can to encourage them to settle for less. After all, I’m sure the odd husband or two has been guilty of this over the years. Okay, some wives may play the ‘unmanliness’ card, but that is hardly any worse than many of the tactics that husbands have advanced. I can recall many occasions from my years in practice when husbands tried to intimidate their wives into accepting less than they were entitled to.
The simple fact of the matter is that a wife telling her ex that he is not a ‘real man’ if he asks for maintenance is just something that some husbands are going to have to expect, just as many wives have had to get used to being bullied by their husbands when it comes to finances. In both cases the bullying should, of course, be resisted.
Perhaps a more valid point made by the article is that some husbands don’t feel that they should seek what they are entitled to. Here, the ‘bullying’ (if we can call it that) comes not from the wife but from society at large. I’m sure there are many people out there who haven’t caught up with the modern world and still think it ‘unmanly’ for a husband to be supported by his ex-wife. I can certainly imagine such husbands being mercilessly ribbed by their colleagues in the pub. However, I’m sure that most such dinosaurs will eventually catch up.
Of course, irrespective of what each of the parties does or feels, it is the duty of the court to ensure that the parties receive broadly what they are entitled to, even if they have reached agreement and simply want that agreement incorporated into a consent order. However, the article suggests that despite the neutrality of the statute, the courts are less likely to make orders favourable to husbands than orders favourable to wives. Again, such a claim is hardly news. The courts should of course be even-handed, and treat claims by husbands the same as claims by wives. If they do not do so then that is wrong.
Of course, none of this should be a problem if those going to law have access to good legal advice. Wives, husbands, and, yes, even judges will be told that everyone should be treated the same. Sadly, though, we no longer live in an age when everyone has access to good legal advice. Accordingly, despite (hopefully) the population gradually coming to realise that husbands should be treated the same, the issue may persist for longer and more widely than it should.
Photo by Connie Ma via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.