December 29, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
If this article is at all accurate, London must be the divorce capital of the world (Washington Post, 12/25/14). That of course may rankle with the likes of Massachusetts and California that sometimes seem to be vying for that dubious honor. But whichever jurisdiction actually deserves the award, London – and that means England generally – is clearly in the running.
Why would one state or nation have more divorces per capita than another? The obvious answer is that one jurisdiction more richly rewards one of the litigants than does another. Anyone can bring him/herself under the jurisdiction of a family court simply by residing in the area for the time prescribed by law. In England, that’s one year; in the U.S., it’s usually half that or less.
Once there, Mom or Dad can sue for divorce regardless of where the other spouse is. Apparently plenty of people are opting for London as the jurisdiction of choice for reversing “till death do us part.” But those doing so aren’t people generally, they’re lower-earning spouses. That’s right. The reason London is so popular a destination for those bent on untying the knot is that family courts in Great Britain offer especially bountiful rewards to spouses who opted to not sully their hands with paid work during marriage.
Depending on your perspective, the laws here are either notoriously or gloriously favorable to the non-breadwinner — traditionally, though not always, the wife. Regardless of who made the money, courts here generally stick to 50/50 settlements and lifetime alimony payments while showing zero tolerance for hide-the-asset shell games and only limited appreciation for prenups.
The laws have been that way for years — since a 2000 case involving two dairy farmers set a precedent for equal treatment of breadwinners and homemakers. But the difference now is the phenomenal sums involved as London has emerged as a playground for Russian oligarchs, Chinese moguls and gulf sheiks.
The wealthiest Brits are part of the phenomenon, as well: Late last month, a British hedge fund manager was ordered to pay his American-born wife $530 million — reportedly the largest settlement in English history.
“People are a lot more international than they used to be, and there’s just a lot more money sloshing around,” said Timothy Scott, a prominent divorce attorney who represents Peng and counts Mick Jagger among his former clients. “There are more and more wealthy people who find it’s worth arguing over.”
Not only arguing. There’s also cunning strategizing among unhappy couples who can afford to live across multiple time zones.
“I’ve advised wives who are contemplating divorce that it’s probably a good idea to get a home in England,” Scott said. “A year’s residence is all they need.”
Now, the WaPo article only deals with the lifestyles of the rich, famous and tawdry, but every word of it applies to everyday folks. Oh, we’d be surprised to see the wife of a bus driver in, say, Denmark, pop over to London, purchase a house and live there for a year, solely to gain the upper hand in her upcoming divorce battle. No, that type of behavior is still reserved for those who expect the payoff to be particularly gratifying.
But the principles of divorce law still apply, regardless of your earnings. In England, when two spouses divorce, the higher earner pays the lower earner. That generally means the husband pays the wife. What he pays her is 50% of everything they own even if his earnings paid for 100% of it. Into the bargain, he continues paying her alimony for as long as they both shall live.
Therefore, whether the spouses are rich, poor or somewhere in between, the British state enthusiastically encourages them to divorce. Or, to be precise, it encourages those lower wage earners to do so. And, since it only takes one person to divorce the other, that means the state encourages divorce by offering, in some cases, quite substantial payoffs for doing so. After all, you’ve told that lout countless times to pick up his socks, so why not just take half the marital assets and, at the same time, get a house that meets your requirements for tidiness?
And of course the lifetime alimony aspect of the matter does the same. There too, lower earners are rewarded for not working. For all those who’ve elected to not work and earn, or who’ve simply earned less, Great Britain makes divorce a powerfully enticing proposition.
As we know, that sort of public policy is stupid far beyond even what we’ve come to expect of policy-makers. That of course doesn’t set the bar very high, but even so, the enthusiastic promotion of divorce by any state apparatus simply doesn’t make sense. Intact marriages are, as a general rule, good for everyone and that includes society generally. Intact marriages overwhelmingly tend to produce better-adjusted and more productive children. And the spouses tend to be happier and less apt to use state resources. They’re less likely to engage in the types of anti-social behavior that demand state attention, like crime, illegal drug use and the like. They’re more likely to be gainfully employed too.
So clearly, states have a strong interest in keeping families together where possible, but throughout the Western world, governments pass laws doing exactly the opposite. That suggests that those governments perceive that increasing their own power is more important than doing Job 1, i.e. promoting the general welfare. So maybe they’re not so stupid after all; they just think we are.
But let’s not forget that the whole scheme of divorce, child support and alimony that, on the one hand, actively promotes divorce by one party, actively discourages marriage on the other. If the lower earner is encouraged to divorce, the higher earner is encouraged in the same ways to not marry in the first place.
Beyond discouraging marriage and encouraging divorce, those same laws also discourage engaging in productive work. Both spouses get the same message – that working and earning are penalized while the opposite is rewarded. So it’s not just the whole plethora of dysfunction regarding marriage and divorce that’s influenced by divorce laws, it’s also the economy itself. Someone who’s voted for these laws needs to explain to the rest of us how it makes sense for the state to discourage productive labor.
I won’t be holding my breath waiting, but in the meantime, let’s remember what huge payouts to non-working spouses actually mean. The WaPo article is little but eye candy for folks who like to read about the grasping behavior of those who already have more wealth than 99% of people in the world. But let’s not forget that the very laws that produce $530 million payoffs also influence the behavior of every person of every class who’s ever looked at the socks on the floor and asked “Who needs it?”
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