A recent report – led by the University of Bristol and funded by the Nuffield Foundation – challenges common misconceptions surrounding high-profile divorce cases, revealing that most divorcing couples have limited assets to share, often lacking financial and legal knowledge.
The research indicates that the median total assets of divorcing couples, including homes, pensions, and debts, amount to just £135,000, with equal division of these assets being uncommon. Only around one-third of divorcing couples formally resolve their financial matters through the legal system, and a mere one in ten couples resort to court proceedings. The majority of divorcees arrange crucial matters, such as housing, pensions, and ongoing financial support, outside the legal framework. Lead author Emma Hitchings, Professor of Family Law at the University of Bristol, said:
“The research highlights that the total value of assets most couples have is modest. This presents a totally different picture to the media portrayal of substantial divorce settlements of the very wealthy and gives an important reality check on what ‘everyday’ couples are experiencing on divorce.
Overall, the report exposes the considerable financial vulnerability of women post-divorce. Although legal processes are largely fair, these are not being used, especially by those with least means but most need.”
The study, called Fair Shares, surveyed over 2,400 divorcees, revealing that nearly 20% of couples had no assets to divide. Among those who did, only 30% reported receiving approximately half of the net asset pool. Given the relatively modest average asset pool, 25% of divorcees ended up with no assets or only debts. Most couples preferred a clean financial break, and only 22% had spousal maintenance arrangements, typically for a fixed period and often in favour of the ex-wife.
What’s more, the research found that only 40% of divorcees sought legal advice, with concerns about costs being a significant deterrent. More than 10% did not seek any advice or information during their divorce process.
The study’s findings challenge the notion that spousal maintenance serves as a lifelong “meal ticket” and that legal costs are uniformly exorbitant. In fact, legal costs were found to be relatively modest, with nearly a quarter of divorcees spending less than £1,000 on legal advice, and higher costs being associated with greater wealth. Additionally, the research highlighted that pensions were frequently misunderstood and underutilised assets, as only 10% of divorcees with pensions had arrangements for pension sharing.
Annually, approximately 100,000 couples get divorced in England and Wales. This research underscores the need for improved awareness and understanding of the legal process and individual rights among divorcing individuals, addressing misconceptions about costs. The report coincides with ongoing discussions about reforms led by the Law Commission and the presentation of the Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill in the House of Lords, which seeks to establish equal sharing of assets as the default approach.
Professor Hitchings said:
“More focus should be directed to divorcees with precarious finances, rather than very wealthy clients whose stories dominate media attention. The current discretionary law takes into account the wide range of individual circumstances and needs of divorcing couples.
Although such a proposal might appear simple to introduce, equal sharing would not deliver a fair outcome for many couples with not much to share and very different priorities to those of very wealthy divorcees, such as providing a home for children from the relationship.
Maintaining a discretionary approach and introducing a way of factoring in pensions are therefore key considerations for future reform.”