Paying the price of broken relationships

It seems the news is full of divorcing couples, from Macca to City financiers who have fallen foul of the House of Lords.

Or maybe it’s just because I am getting married and nuptial talk is registering high on my radar.

Two High Court rulings recently sent a shiver up the spines of separating high earners and their lawyers. The first was Julia McFarlane, who had agreed with her husband to give up a promising career as a lawyer to care for their children. Meanwhile he went on to become a senior tax partner at Deloitte, earning more than £750,000 per year.

After 16 years of marriage, the House of Lords agreed with Julia McFarlane that she was entitled to £250,000 a year for life, scrapping a five-year limit imposed by the appeal judges.

In the second case, the House of Lords ruled that Melissa Miller was entitled to keep £5m of her husband’s wealth, thought to represent about one-sixth of his total assets.

Her marriage to fund manager Alan Miller ended after he had an affair. It had lasted less than three years.

In both the above cases the couples involved have millions. But given the growth of equity in many people’s homes, the rulings could have far reaching consequences for the property owning divorcing classes.

At least Julia had the protection of the law. Today there are more than two million unmarried but cohabiting couples in this country, a figure expected to double by 2031.

For many unmarried women who agree to give up their careers to look after their families, there is little protection if the relationship breaks down. Many make the mistake of thinking that they are covered by common law marriage but this is a myth. The concept of common law marriage has not existed since 1753.

The reality is that if an unmarried couple splits but assets including property are held in only one partner’s name, then the other partner has no right to make a claim, children or no children . The same is true if one partner dies without leaving a will.

Ministers have recognised this is a problem and last week the Law Commission unveiled proposals to allow unmarried partners to make claims based on their economic sacrifice.

The consultation covers what would happen to finances and property in the event of couples with children splitting.

But these are tentative steps, as accusations of downgrading the value of marriage, of not respecting family values and denouncements from the moral right make politicians feel nervous.

The Law Commission has asked the public whether these reforms should go further, to include gay couples who have not entered into civil partnerships and couples without children. It also asks whether there should be a minimum period of cohabitation.

Breaking up is hard to do at the best of times, but finding you have not only lost your relationship but have no right to assets built up together can be devastating.

It’s time the law was updated to recognise modern forms of commitment so the financially vulnerable, so often women, can be looked after.