The Chartered Insurance Institute recently released a survey entitled Risk, exposure and resilience to risk in Britain today. It pulled together a number of sources highlighting the perilous financial state of divorcing/ separating women and readers of the survey will find not only that within its pages but an examination of their vulnerability to assault as well. It’s all there to read in one composite and comprehensive document.
The Guardian’s Tracy McVeigh then weighed in with an article in support, featuring a photo from Grace and Frankie, the popular US Netflix comedy drama that returns for a new season this week. I know this because my wife is a massive fan of the show. The photo shows the characters of Grace and Frankie – two divorced upper-middle class women – drinking wine.
McVeigh’s article appropriately featured Emma – herself a middle class divorcee -chasing her ex-banker husband up hill and down dale for unpaid maintenance. Although he had been made redundant and the maintenance and related child disputes had already cost her some £85k in legal fees, she was hoping to “change the law” by obtaining arrears from his redundancy pay. I have news for Emma: other women have succeeded in doing exactly that and I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen again in her case.
Except it was hard to feel that much sympathy for her. The relationship between her and her ex was clearly a toxic one. She conceded that she is luckier than most in that, post-divorce, she owns a home for herself and has her three children but still complained of the vast disparity in pension provision. Well…there would be one wouldn’t there? We don’t know how much capital she received on the divorce but if she owns her own home it could well have been more than half. She certainly had a spare £85k to invest in what might be regarded by some as utterly futile legal fees. And what the article did not tell us, crucially, is whether she is working too and earning an income herself. And if not, why not? So with many facts missing, we don’t know whether to sympathise with Emma, or her ex. I am inclined to think ‘neither’.
You might think my response to the article is out of kilter with the views of the practising divorce lawyers quoted in the same piece. I’ve no idea whether they have ever acted for women on the breadline and if they have, I’d guess they haven’t done so for decades. Nevertheless they all uniformly sympathised with women who find themselves hard done by as a result of divorce or cohabitation, highlighting the disparity in their financial positions compared to wealthier ex-partners who can rebuild their lives thanks to higher earnings. With a spokesperson from Gingerbread as the icing on the cake, saying marriage is overrated anyhow, the article tried to make it clear as possible that it is the women embarking on new relationships that take all the financial risks. But are they doing so to any greater degree than men? Or does the article reflect a somewhat patriarchal attitude to divorcing women that may be long overdue for change?
On divorce in England and Wales, the reasonable needs of the parties are met out of the available assets. In the poorest cases of course, there are few assets available for either party. There might be a small amount of savings but chances are precious little else with debts, and if the parties do own a house there’ll be a stonking mortgage to cover as well. In cases like that, neither party will walk away with much at all, and both of them, like it or lump it, will be going to work, simply to manage. There won’t be glasses of wine with friends in the afternoons. In the show, Grace and Frankie have each other and a Malibu beachfront house to cope with marital breakdown but the reality is most women have few options. They have to make do as best they can – doing it all themselves. As will their children. As will their ex husbands, who may not have much to show for themselves at the end of their working lives.
To work or not to work?
But The Guardian did not really address such average, less well-off women. Instead it was all about those middle class women who probably “gave up work” (if they ever had much of a job at all) to raise a family. And doing so was most likely their own choice. It may have seemed a joint decision, but ultimately the decision to get off the daily treadmill of work will have been their own. They can’t expect to have the same income capacity or benefits as a returner after having been out of work for years. But they can work at their marriages if financial security is what they crave. And contribute to the pot. And take responsibility for their own future, rather than trying to shut the proverbial stable door after the horse has bolted.
As I see it, such women cannot have it all. A non-working wife does not have the same responsibilities, liabilities and obligations as one who does. Ergo she cannot expect the same benefits when time has passed her by. Conversely, a husband hit with an ongoing maintenance liability also has a millstone around his neck for as long as the court insists he pays it. Building a new life with a new family – a future – will be financially tough for him as a result, unless he is so wealthy that his first wife would have achieved her clean break anyhow. He not only has to maintain his new family but the previous family too. So let’s not put any decorative roses around his door. A second wife or partner will soon find out that, most likely she is not only maintaining her own family (if the couple can afford children at all) but also contributing to his first family through the loss of his earnings. Meanwhile, the first wife may not be doing much at all because the family court accepted the impairment of her earning capacity that resulted from having spent so many years off work raising a family. That is the most likely scenario, and one that Tracy McVeigh’s article frankly ignored.
So yes. Women certainly do take financial risks when they begin a new relationship, but it will not be a one sided story if the marriage eventually breaks down. It takes two to tango and two to take financial risks that both may come to bitterly regret.
Tracy McVeigh’s article in The Guardian is here.
Read the Chartered Insurance Institute survey here.