When spouses each make valuable contributions to a long marriage, the general rule is that marital assets should be divided equally in the event of divorce. As an unusual High Court ruling concerning the validity of a French marriage contract showed, however, the sharing principle can be displaced by agreement.
The case concerned a couple who married in France when they were just starting out on their highly successful business careers. Their marriage lasted for over 25 years, yielding three children. Before they tied the knot, however, they signed a French marriage contract which provided that their respective assets would be treated as separate were their marriage to come to an end.
They moved to Britain soon after the wedding and it was here that the wife petitioned for divorce. She asserted that the marital assets should be divided equally between them. The husband, however, pointed to the marriage contract and argued that, by agreement, the sharing principle had no application to the case.
The wife contended that she signed the contract as a necessary stepping-stone to marriage and to give a clear and reassuring message that she was not interested in the husband's family assets. She said that they pooled their resources during the marriage in line with a shared vision that they would be as one. Her understanding was that the contract merely excluded inherited resources from division.
The Court found, however, that the marriage contract was freely entered into by both wife and husband and that they each had a full appreciation of its implications. The contract was of a type very common in France and had been drafted by the firm of notaries used by the wife's family.
Nobody had suggested that it was the husband or his family who were pressing for the contract. The wife was extremely intelligent, and the Court had no doubt that the notary would have explained to her the ramifications of the contract in detail. The wife's claim for financial relief therefore stood to be assessed on the basis of her reasonable needs, rather than the sharing principle.
The Court found that the wife was entitled to exit the marriage with assets worth over £9.4 million, plus her interest in a French property. Her provision amounted to 38.9 per cent of the overall marital assets, which were worth more than £24 million. In the light of the marriage contract and other relevant circumstances, the Court found that the resulting division of assets was correct and appropriate.