Women are increasingly losing out on fair divorce settlements because couples are trying to divorce ‘on the cheap’ and, therefore, not taking the required legal advice.
Recent research by the University of Bristol has found that as so many couples have few assets, they are choosing to try to save money by trying to progress their divorces themselves ‘on the cheap’. Dangerously, this can involve trying to sort the most important elements of the divorce settlement, such as what will happen to their property, pensions and ongoing maintenance payments without any professional advice about the implications of the decisions made.
The Fair Shares project has been led by academics at the University of Bristol with funding from the Nuffield Foundation.
Its research team found more than 1 in 10 couples in England and Wales took no legal advice (in person from a lawyer or via online research) to help them with their divorce. Moreover, only 2 in 5 divorcees said they had used a lawyer for information and advice during their divorce and only 1 in 10 divorcees with access to a pension in the future had made a formal pension sharing agreement.
The report also reveals the average divorce pot (the family home, pensions, savings and debts) is £135,000. However, at the same time almost 20% of divorcing couples have no assets to divide and around 25% of divorcees end up with either nothing or, worse, debt. This is in stark contrast to the reports of huge divorce settlements for the wealthy the media is so keen to promote.
Many couples said the reason for not taking legal advice was because they were worried about how much it would cost. This is despite the fact in cases in which formal legal advice was sought, nearly a quarter of those who had used a lawyer said it had cost them less than £1,000.
The author of the report, Emma Hitchings, a professor of family law at the University of Bristol, believes the reasons people are sidestepping lawyers and trying to take matters into their own hands to divorce ‘on the cheap’ include the continuing cuts to legal aid and a general lack of legal knowledge:
“They are bypassing a legal system designed to achieve fairness. That is leaving women worse off and putting their future financial security at risk. Although legal processes are largely fair, they are not being used.”
Ms Hitchings went on to explain just how damaging this can be when pensions are either not dealt with properly or avoided altogether and this could potentially have an enormous impact on many women’s financial futures:
“The equal division of pension pots is not the norm … more than a third of divorcees did not know the value of their own pension pot, let alone their spouse’s. Without all assets, particularly pensions, being considered on divorce, the future financial security of many women – who generally have smaller pension pots than men – is being put at risk.”
Proposals for reform are currently being considered by the Law Commission. It is hoped the Controversial Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill will make equal sharing of assets the default. It is something Ash Patel, the programme head for justice at the Nuffield Foundation, would definitely welcome:
“This research lands at a critical moment, when the laws implemented half a century ago around divorce finances are under review. It highlights the persistence and prevalence of myths around divorce, and clearly demonstrates the often unequal financial footing of parties going into and coming out of a divorce. Here, women appear more financially vulnerable, tending to be financially worse off than men in the years after the divorce.”
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