Conduct in divorce cases often raises its head as an issue when family lawyers are first consulted. To most clients, it seems clear as day that since their spouse is at fault in some way, it must follow that this will impact on the financial outcomes in the divorce settlement.
I asked one of my colleagues at Family Law Partners, Lisa Burton-Durham, to let me post an article she has recently written on this enduring issue. I think my readers will find it of great value. Thanks, Lisa!
Conduct in divorce cases
I am often asked whether a spouse’s behaviour would have an effect upon the financial settlement following a divorce. Indeed there is a common misconception that one person’s ‘bad’ behaviour will mean that their spouse will receive a larger financial settlement by way of compensation for one and penalisation for the other. But is that right?
Conduct is one of the factors that the court should take into account when looking at the appropriate financial settlement within divorce proceedings. However the law is very clear in that the conduct will only be taken into account if it is so serious that it would unfair for the court to disregard it.
Of course, deciding on whether conduct is such that it should be taken into account will be subjective to many. I often hear: “It was my husband who went off with someone else so why should he get anything?” or “She recklessly gambled away lots of our money so why should she get half of my assets?”
When looking at the relevance of conduct there are two types to be considered: personal misconduct and financial misconduct.
Personal misconduct involves some sort of ‘bad behaviour’ on the part of one party. In my experience it the type of misconduct that is complained of the most but it is actually very rare that it will have any bearing upon the financial settlement. Adultery and most forms of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ will probably only be relevant when deciding who should pay the costs of the divorce.
To be a relevant factor in a financial settlement, personal misconduct has to be of a very serious nature and outside the range of normality. Ordinary fighting and quarrelling in an unhappy marriage would not be sufficient neither would one party having committed adultery. Examples of cases where personal misconduct was taken into account include a wife shooting her husband and a husband committing incest with the children of the family. Thankfully, these types of cases are extremely rare.
Financial misconduct is normally where one party recklessly or purposely squanders assets prior to the divorce proceedings, thereby reducing the amount of the ‘matrimonial pot’. Examples of this are gambling and spending money on unnecessary things like expensive holidays and cars.
In such circumstances the court will try to put right the circumstances by ‘adding back’ the money or assets that have been spent and continuing on the basis that the party still has them.
It is also important to note that conduct during the course of the divorce proceedings, such as failing to comply with a court order, is not usually punished by providing a lower settlement to the ‘guilty’ party. However they can be penalised by the court ordering that that party pay a contribution towards the other party’s costs. This is known as ‘litigation conduct’.
To summarise, it is quite unusual for a conduct claim to be successful, especially if the misconduct is personal. It is therefore very important that legal advice is sought before embarking on such a claim as this could save considerable expense in the long run.
Lisa Burton-Durham is a Chartered Legal Executive and accredited collaborative lawyer with Family Law Partners based in Brighton. Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice.