'Don't get mad, get everything': The high price of breaking up
The country was intrigued this week when a judge ordered a cheating husband to pay millions to his wife. Yet now the economy is recovering, separation and divorce are back on the agenda for many couples whose relationships ended years ago
Published 23/04/2015 | 09:39
The revelation this week that an Irish judge ordered a cheating husband to give his estranged wife €4.2m in assets and €180,000 a year in maintenance showed just how expensive and acrimonious marriage can be for high rollers when romance turns sour.
War of the Roses-style arguments between the spouses were heard over a 15-day period in the High Court, which eventually ruled that the wife of a "dynamic" businessman who had cheated on his spouse with one of her friends and other women was entitled to a decree of judicial separation because she could not be expected to stay with him.
The judge awarded the wife a family home worth €1.6m, a holiday home valued at €1.7m, half of his €1.8m-pension pot, and a pre-tax monthly allowance worth €18,000, including €3,000 in living expenses for their four children.
Mr Justice David Keane, the High Court judge who made the order, noted that the straying businessman fared well during the recession, earning about €1.4m a year. He also owns or controls companies valued at some €7.4m, has a share portfolio, and investment properties worth some €2.3m. However, he does have to repay €7.7m in loans.
While few judicial separation cases are aired in such intimate detail in Ireland, and many settlements are agreed on before the case even gets to court, the maintenance order for the businessman's wife was the largest seen in years by Justin Spain, who runs a boutique family law firm.
For regular married couples who break up, the only asset to be divvied out is usually the family home. During the recession, economic hardship and austerity also took their toll on marital relationships, proving the old idiom "when poverty comes in the window, love flies out the door". But warring spouses were compelled to stay together anyway - often under the same roof. Freefalling property prices made it harder to sell homes in negative equity and banks were reluctant to give one spouse a mortgage to buy out their former partner's half of the home or purchase a property of their own, Spain points out.
Now that the property market and the economy are recovering, judicial separation and divorce is back on the agenda for couples whose relationships ended years ago.
"The number of divorces may rise (in the years ahead) because a lot of people wanted to separate over the last five years and couldn't because of the collapse in property prices and the amount of debt people had," Spain says. "The rise in prices and availability of mortgages are making it more possible to separate."
Ireland still has one of the lowest rates of divorce in Europe, but there is an upward trend. There were 1,317 applications for judicial separation in 2013, a 2pc increase from 2012. The number of divorce applications rose 4pc to 3,609 applications for divorce in the same year. The majority of applications in both instances are filed by wives.
Divorce is still a long drawn-out process in Ireland. It can only be granted when the couple has lived apart for four out of the preceding five years, there is no reasonable prospect of reconciling, and "proper provision" has been made for both spouses and their offspring.
Rather than live in the legal limbo that is waiting for a divorce, separating couples can get a decree of judicial separation, which allows the courts to make orders on how to divide property and other assets.
While Ivana Trump famously advised the wives of wealthy men "don't get mad - get everything" when divorcing Donald Trump after finding out he was cheating on her with beauty queen Marla Maples, it doesn't quite work out that way in Irish courts, Spain says.
"When you get married, you throw your lot in together and become a joint enterprise," he says. "It can be that one spouse earns way more than the other person, who may be doing more childcare. When a marriage breaks down, the assets are divided equally. And some people find that a little unfair.
"The best a wife (or husband) is generally going to get is half the assets, and under the Succession Act, she's entitled to a third of his estate if he were to die. Starting point is a third and best is a half.
"If a wife stayed at home to rear children while he worked building up a business, the courts would have considered that was her contribution. Just because she worked in the home doesn't change that. If you're a woman in your mid-50s and you've been at home for 30 years rearing children, the courts view your chances of getting a job as very slim so you will almost certainly get spousal maintenance. But if you're a man or a woman in your mid-30s and working, you are not going to get spousal maintenance."
The High Court judge found that the businessman's wife of 18 years had contributed to her husband's earning capacity by looking after the home and caring for the family and was willing to work. He acknowledged she had only relinquished her career after the birth of their third child and, by taking a back seat on her career, had diminished her future earning capacity.
Muriel Walls of Dublin family law practice Walls & Toomey says judges typically expect separated women to go back to work once their children are at school, at least on a part-time basis.