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What happens if the wife makes more money in a divorce?

Today, a third of British women are the main financial provider in their family, an impressive rise of 80% in the past 15 years.  This is a welcome and clear sign of greater gender equality and something that should be celebrated and encouraged.

However, does this gender equality extend to the family courts in the determination of cases where the wife is the higher wage earner? We asked Sarah Snow, a Partner at our London office to join us on the blog to share her views on gender equality in the family court.

Divorce legislation in the UK is gender neutral, but it is a different matter when it comes to the court applying it as such.

The legislation is clear that lump sum capital awards and maintenance orders can be made to either party in a divorce, irrespective of gender.

The courts in the UK have a very long history of awarding generous maintenance payments to wives, both in terms of length and quantum. However, in my 10 years practising there appears to be an uphill battle to persuade the courts to award maintenance to a man.

Why is it rare to see the court order a wife to pay maintenance to a husband?

The Court has a wide discretion to make a whole range of orders, however the judges at the business end of the awards are like any other member of society, an individual with a wide range of views, opinions, beliefs and potential bias all moulded by their own upbringing, socio-economic background and experience.

Perhaps this plays a role in the conclusion that women are still to be viewed as the vulnerable party in need of protection, the homemaker and primary carer for the children, who even if earning double that of the husband shouldn’t be expected to shell out a monthly maintenance.

To set aside these subconscious views and beliefs when deciding is impossible.  The wide-ranging powers and discretion afforded allow for an individual view and assessment of a case, which inevitably leads to unpredictable outcomes. It is the reason why family lawyers so often advise their clients to try and settle their case and avoid a Final Hearing where the eventual determination can be so uncertain.

All this being said, there has been several high-profile celebrity divorce cases where men have been triumphant in divorce. Guy Ritchie reportedly received a settlement of £50m from ex-wife Madonna, the largest ever settlement for a man.

It can also be said that there has been a general increase in more generous pay-outs to men from their wives in divorce.   But these types of “big money” cases rarely impact the more modest run of the mill cases that pass through the family courts year in year out, where courts are often looking at simply dividing assets to ensure parties needs are met.

These cases are not at the forefront of championing gender equality for men. In these smaller cases, it is unlikely that the courts would award maintenance in favour of the husband, even if the wife is earning significantly more, a decision perhaps not so easily made when it is a man who is the higher earner.

Financial independence should be the goal for both men and women following a divorce. Although there has been a long-standing cultural view held by society and the judiciary that women need greater support, considering the inequalities faced by women in the workplace, mothers seeking employment or struggling to break the gender pay divide.

I do believe that the tide is turning, and the courts are steering away from decisions granting the wife a “meal ticket for life” however a further cultural change in attitude is needed if we are to improve gender equality in the family courts.

Sarah is a Partner at our London Victoria office. She has a thorough knowledge of all aspects of family law, specialising in financially complex divorce cases, often involving business, trusts and overseas assets and high conflict children’s cases.

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  1. Steve Aldridge says:

    My wife and I thank you for this article or should I say Me and my wife thank you to keep it on an equality basis.. The gender issue in favour of women through family and criminal courts exists without doubt. Strange how their is a Minister forwomen and Equality ( same Minister) yet there is no Minister for men. More recent surveys suggest that domeatic violence is instigated initially usually in the first place towards men. Your articles are unbiased and say ‘how it is’ which is how it should be. I draw your attention to the newspaper article by Steve Doughty, Daily Mail 21st June 2019 headed ”Court cases hit as Judges ‘refuse to use new computers’. ” Small wonder so many MP’s ,support groups and individuals are demanding Reform of the whole Family Court system.
    In particular Enforcement after denying contact on excuse to the NRP is not happening. As highlighted by Suella Braverman MP. An article on that would be interesting. Thank you for offering hope.

  2. Matthew says:

    A wealthy female once said to her love interest if he tried to return her he wouldn’t get his money back. He has no assets and would sacrifice his job to marry+live with her as hes UK but she’s Australia. She has several kids already but has stated they have trusts,funds, etc. Is it possible she was saying in divorce despite her estate he’d get nothing, possibly even lose money? She has her own team of lawyers that handle business+estate.

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