The relationship between alcohol and divorce is long-standing and complex. Here Senior Family Lawyer Beth Sheridan looks at the impact alcohol has on relationships, whether it affects divorce outcomes, and how the introduction of no-fault divorce will fundamentally change the way those whose marriage has broken down due to alcohol will file for divorce.
Alcohol and divorce
Drinking alcohol is a widely accepted part of modern life – many of us will a drink at the end of a tough day and celebrate with a drink on special occasions. Alcohol has become relatively cheap and accessible to all, and when enjoyed in moderation, what is the harm? However, for some their relationship with alcohol is more complex and as divorce lawyers we see day in day out the detrimental effect that alcohol can have upon individuals and their families.
Are we now drinking more?
According to pre- pandemic statistics, 82% of adults a year drank alcohol with 49% drinking at least once a week and around 10% of adults drinking on five or more days a week. During the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, more than 28% of people surveyed by Alcohol Change UK said that had consumed more alcohol than usual with heavier drinkers the worse affected.
Alcohol has long been linked to marriage breakdown and again the pandemic led to a rise in the number of divorce petitions which mentioned alcohol, up from one in six to one in four. It is also interesting that the more people earn, the more likely they are to drink alcohol, and consequently alcohol affects the relationships of people from all walks of life.
Alcohol and behaviour
Although divorce law is set to change next month with the introduction of no-fault divorce, under our current divorce law irretrievable breakdown of marriage can be supported by the other party having “behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot be expected to live with” them. Drinking alcohol and the resulting impact on a relationship and family life commonly feature as examples of such behaviour.
Alcohol consumption can impact on many areas of a marriage. In the most serious cases, it can lead to domestic violence and abuse. More commonly, it impacts upon employment, family finances and debt, and the social and intimate lives of couples. It is telling that even with the rise of other examples of difficult behaviour relating to gambling, gaming, social media and the use of smartphones, alcohol remains the biggest factor in marriage breakdown.
Does alcohol impact the outcome of divorce?
So, whilst alcohol consumption is currently is an example of behaviour which can justify a fault-based divorce, does it impact upon any other aspect of the divorce process? For example, does alcohol affect the division of the family’s financial assets; is the party who drinks going to get less out of the pot on divorce? The simple answer is “no”.
The factors that the Court will consider when dividing up the assets of the marriage which typically consist of the home, savings, pensions, businesses etc are also contained in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 at s25 (2) and at s25(2)(g) the Court can consider the “conduct” of one party but only where it is “so obvious and gross that it would be inequitable to disregard it”.
Alcohol and divorce precedence
Cases where the Court considers such conduct are rare and generally related to “litigation conduct” where a party fails to disclose assets or comply with the Court process. Other types of conduct must have an impact or consequence upon the family finances such as the case of H v H (2006) where the husband stabbed the wife who was then unable to work as a result. The same year, the case of M v M allowed the dissipation of assets through gambling to be considered as “conduct”.
However, these are extreme cases, and the reality is, particularly as it is such a common feature in marriage breakdown, alcohol is highly unlikely to impact of the division of the assets. Irrespective of the behaviour of one party or the other (which is often a matter of dispute), the Court must ensure that both their needs and those of any children are met – that they have suitable housing, income, pension provision etc and the focus is upon this rather than who is “at fault” for the marriage breakdown.
Alcohol and no-fault divorce
With the introduction of no-fault divorce in April 2022, divorce lawyers will no longer need to take detailed notes of the other spouses’ behaviour to use in a divorce petition.
With the removal of the requirement for blame comes the removal of the need to prove such behaviour, freeing up those whose relationship has been impacted by alcohol to divorce on the simple basis that their marriage has broken down.
While no-fault divorce is a positive step forward for those whose marriage has been devastated by alcohol, it’s likely that drinking will continue to be a feature in marriage breakdown and as we have seen, in times of stress the impact increases. One area of optimism is that young people today are less likely to drink alcohol than those aged in their middle years and teetotalism has risen in those aged 16-44. So, perhaps alcohol will feature less in divorce cases as the years go by.