The truth about… Divorce
Nightmare mother-in-laws, flashing a spouse’s colleagues on Zoom and falling in love with a goat…Sarah Ward, partner in Family Law at Newcastle-based law firm Samuel Phillips has seen it all...
Do you see a ‘peak time’ for divorces in the year?
Peak times for new divorce enquiries are usually in September, after the school summer holidays, and again in January, after the Christmas break. Most of the enquiries I receive at these times are no more than a knee-jerk reaction to having spent a confined period of time together and the added stress and pressure that family holidays and Christmas can often bring. These enquires rarely result in divorce proceedings.
Why were you attracted to working in divorce law?
I initially specialised in employment law. Then, while on maternity leave, I rather unexpectedly found myself facing a divorce and facing life as a single parent (with a toddler and a newborn). I had no income, and I couldn’t access joint marital funds – or I wrongly believed that I couldn’t access them! – so I didn’t think I would be able to get advice from a solicitor (wrong again). So I set about doing my own divorce from my kitchen table. It was truly horrific! It dragged on for over three years. It included many court hearings, me facing very experienced lawyers across the courtroom, culminating in a lengthy contested final hearing. I suffered one, possibly two, nervous breakdowns during the process. But I emerged on the other side with a fair financial settlement (although my ex-husband may disagree) and knowledgeable in all things divorce-related. It made me want to switch to practicing family law, particularly divorces.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Acting for someone during a divorce is so fundamental. In many cases, you’re fighting for a person to keep their home or their business and to ensure that they have the requisite financial resources to, essentially, start a new life. I meet people at their absolute lowest point, but then I have the privilege of supporting them through to the next chapter in their lives. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions for them (and often for me, too!). At the first meeting, my clients are often depressed, anxious, angry, in shock, and almost always feeling completely overwhelmed and confused. They’re struggling to get through each day and can see no way forward. I say to them: in six months time, or maybe in 1 or 2 years, you will tell me that this divorce was the best thing that ever happened to you. They look at me in disbelief – but I’m always right!
What would you recommend people really consider first before beginning divorce proceedings?
To take legal advice, ideally before they separate! People often think that taking legal advice early on will somehow cause matters to snowball to the point of no return. This is simply not the case. Taking advice early on allows a person to make informed decisions about whether to reconcile or separate.
Is a ‘DIY Divorce’ worth it?
There are so many pitfalls and dangers to doing your own DIY divorce without having taken any legal advice. The main pitfall is that a person is likely to exit a marriage without a fair share of the marital assets. Marital assets are any assets that have built up during a marriage (and often cohabitation), regardless of whose name the asset is in. In some cases, marital assets will include inheritance received by the other spouse and can also include assets a spouse owned before the marriage.
Another major pitfall with a ‘DIY Divorce’ is that many separating couples don’t realise a divorce doesn’t sever financial ties between a couple. So having completed a ‘DIY Divorce’, they may find themselves many years later faced with a financial claim from an ex-spouse. To avoid this, it’s crucial to reach a financial agreement with your spouse before you finalise your divorce. Then simply ask a solicitor to make this agreement into a formal agreement – known as a Consent Order – which then needs to be approved by the Court. Only then should you finalise the divorce itself. Solicitors costs can be kept to an absolute minimum if all they are required to do is to draw up the financial agreement. Costs only escalate when a couple can’t reach an agreement as to a financial settlement.
If any of our readers are thinking about beginning divorce proceedings, do you recommend that they start straight away or wait a little while?
Everyone’s circumstances are different; that’s why it is so important to get legal advice before making any decisions. Often people are in a state of shock when they first separate, so this isn’t the right time to be making any major decisions, such as where they will live. Others are keen to get matters sorted as quickly as possible to cut all ties and move on. In a rush to do so, they often finalise matters without even understanding their spouse’s financial situation or their own future financial needs. There are many other factors to consider when considering the timing of a divorce, such as the value of marital assets and whether these are likely to increase or decrease in the future. Always take legal advice!
What do you think everyone should go into a marriage knowing?
I would say the thing to know is to know who you are marrying. Before marrying, couples need to really get to know one another and their family, friends, and colleagues. They should talk about how they envisage their lives unfolding after the wedding and determine whether they are on the same page about their future plans. I see so many couples separating after just one or two years of marriage, many citing that they had no shared interests or didn’t know about some nuance (eating too loudly is a very common complaint!). Or another is simply a hatred of their new mother-in-law!
What would you say is the ‘best case scenario’ or outcome of a divorce?
Of course, the best case scenario is when a couple have been able to reach a swift agreement between themselves as to the division of the marital assets with minimum input from solicitors. Both parties then exit the marriage with a fair share of the marital assets and legal costs have been kept to a minimum.
But sadly for many, this isn’t possible. After all, they are divorcing, often after the discovery of an affair or against the wishes of one party – tensions are fever-pitch and things can turn nasty very quickly. The best case scenario here is for both parties to instruct solicitors, who are professionally obliged to act in their client’s best interests. This includes not inflaming the situation – believe it or not! Ideally the solicitors then work with the couple to help them reach a settlement without the necessity for costly court proceedings.
What are some of the weirdest reasons for divorce you’ve dealt with?!
Often a couple are divorcing on amicable terms, but to enable them to divorce and finalise their financial agreement without having to wait two years or more, they have to commence a divorce based on one spouse’s ‘unreasonable behaviour’. It’s necessary to give some examples of behaviour in the petition. They’re on good terms, so I try to keep the examples as amicable as possible. I’ve successfully filed a petition for a wife citing the husband’s unreasonable behaviour as ‘always stealing her favourite chocolate from the box’. A more recent one, which my client and his now-ex have both agreed I can share, is that when he started working from home during lockdown, his work voice irritated her so much she went to great lengths to try and get him to move in with his parents. I cited in the husband’s petition how the wife’s unreasonable behaviour included her ‘flashing’ to his work colleagues during a video conference!
The most bizarre reason I have ever had for the breakdown of a marriage, though, was many years ago – when a husband fell out of love with his wife and in love with a goat! (No goats were harmed during the breakdown of the marriage).