British divorcées won a remarkable breakthrough in their battle for a more generous division of family wealth Wednesday when the country's top court ruled in favor of two women claiming millions of pounds of their ex-husbands' assets.
In an extremely rare intervention in the contentious world of marital breakdown, the House of Lords sided with Melissa Miller and Julia McFarlane in quite distinct cases that appeared to swing the pendulum of divorce finances further toward wives.
Lawyers said the rulings were ground-breaking because for the first time they took into account the financial sacrifice of women giving up their careers for their husbands and also their contribution as homemakers.
"Until today maintenance for a stay-at-home mum was based purely on her living costs," said James Pirrie, lawyer for Ms. McFarlane, who gave up her career to look after the couple's three children.
As for wealthy men facing their own marital crises, the decisions sent the unequivocal message that divorce would be costly. For Sir Paul McCartney, said to be worth as much as £800 million, the rulings are particularly untimely, coming just weeks after his own four-year marriage collapsed. Observers say he could now face a divorce settlement of as much as £200 million - the largest in British history.
Wednesday's decision followed tortuous appeal processes that took both cases to the highest court in the land. Though the two cases were different, the law lords who sit in ultimate judgment over legal issues in Britain ruled that the women sacrificed careers, prospects and income to make homes for their husbands, and in so doing enhanced the men's careers and financial status. The lords said the settlements should reflect the fact that "each party to a marriage is entitled to a fair share of the available property".
In the McFarlane case, the court upheld Julia's demand for a maintenance of £250,000 a year for life. Her husband Kenneth, a senior tax accountant who earned in excess of £750,000 a year, had argued for a lesser sum.
Mr. Pirrie, her lawyer, called it a "groundbreaking ruling."
"Now judges must consider contribution and compensation for people like Julia," he said. "This is only fair. The judgment recognizes her sacrifice and that marriage is a partnership."
The Miller case was more surprising still in that the marriage lasted less than three years and ended childless. Melissa Miller, an American PR executive who had also given up work, wanted £5 million from her husband Alan, a multimillionaire fund manager.
He argued that he was wealthy before they married, and was prepared to part with only £1.7 million. The law lords gave her the full settlement. The case had turned particularly poisonous, with Miller castigating his ex-wife as a "waste of space" and spendthrift termagant."
The cases come amid a growing number of expensive divorces in Britain, perhaps not surprising in a country where two in five marriages break down. Multimillion-pound settlements have been made recently to ex-wives of top golfer Colin Montgomeria, footballer Ray Parlour, and advertising chief Sir Martin Sorrell.
Two businessmen, Steve Morgan and Peter Harrison, are thought to hold jointly the dubious honor of the biggest divorce payout, both reportedly parting with around £100 million. But that record could be smashed if the McCartney case comes to court. The couple announced their separation earlier this month after four years of marriage. According to Patricia Hollings, a barrister who specializes in family law at Finers Stephens Innocent, Heather Mills McCartney can take heart from Wednesday's legal ruling.
"The [Miller] wife got around 20 percent of his assets," she says. "If you translate that to the McCartneys, you are talking about a starting figure of around £140 million [for her]."
She said the verdict would increase the prevalence of prenuptial agreements, but noted that they do not have the legal force that they do in America.
"You can't bind the parties or the judges to a prenup," Ms. Hollings says, "although if it has been entered into properly, then there is a growing movement in the judiciary to uphold it." Ms. Mills McCartney had reportedly offered to sign a prenuptial agreement, but Sir Paul declined, say it wasn't romantic.
In America, where prenuptial agreements hold far greater sway, high-profile settlements have drawn attention to the role - and value - of the women behind wealthy businessmen.
"We have come a long way in acknowledging the value of a stay-at-home spouse and corporate wife, but we still have more progress to make in quantifying this value during the divorce process," says Lorna Jorgenson, who founded the New York-based Equality in Marriage Institute in 1998 after her divorce from General Electric Capital CEO Gary Wendt. He had offered her a $10 million settlement, which she estimated at 10 percent of their total assets. She fought back "on principle," and got more than $20 million.
In Britain, however, many men beg to differ that such decisions mark progress. Matt O'Connor, a divorcé who pays maintenance to his ex-wife and their children, blames archaic thinking "which harks back to a different era when men should provide for women." O'Connor, the founder of the Fathers4Justice group, which represents divorced dads, says regular maintenance requirements actually make it harder to achieve the clean-break divorce that most people want and can lead to the perpetuation of conflict.
"Who is going to want to get married, and in particular who will want to get remarried, in this day and age?" he asks. "It's a massive disincentive to men, who stand to lose huge sums of money." But that argument may not hold true for everyone. Since his divorce from Melissa, Alan Miller has since remarried.
Lawyers, however, note that the law does not stand still, and though the pendulum has been swinging women's way for some years, a correction may yet come. "Most practitioners acknowledge that pendulum has probably swung as far as it will in women's favor and will start to swing back," says Sarah Anticoni, a family law partner at Charles Russell law firm.