Delays and knowledge gap hit hard for splitting couples

Divorce rates are on the decline according to the latest official statistics, with just over 80,000 completed in 2022, down by almost 30% from 113,505 in 2021, but delays in the family courts mean couples are waiting longer than ever to finalise the parting of their ways.

While the figures show the lowest rate of divorce since 1971, the introduction in April 2022 of new legislation that set out minimum waiting periods at key stages of the process may have slowed down the numbers reaching the stage of final order.

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act also introduced a major change with ‘no fault divorce’, allowing couples to act by joint agreement, rather than having to attribute blame to one spouse, or go through a period of separation.

In overhauling the divorce and the family court process, the government also proposed that couples be required to enter mediation before making a court application.  Backed by a mediation voucher scheme, the aim was to reduce the number of cases going to court, but following consultation, which highlighted the potential for domestic abusers to intimidate, the government has withdrawn plans to make it obligatory.  Instead, they will encourage mediation where it is safe, but will run a pilot to look at ways to fund the provision of early legal advice for parents to ease the process.

This looks to be increasingly important, with research by Bristol University for the Nuffield Foundation suggesting that many couples are simply figuring out money matters themselves, without any legal guidance or process, and this is often leaving women worse off especially when it comes to sharing of pensions, often the most valuable asset of a marriage.

The report says most divorcing couples are not accessing any support when making key arrangements including housing, pensions and ongoing maintenance.  And unlike the news headlines of rich spouses dividing the spoils, the researchers found that the median value of assets owned by divorcing couples was just £135,000.

For those going through the stress of separation, and perhaps already trying to run two homes, getting professional guidance may feel like an expense to be avoided, but knowing your rights and having someone in your corner to support you is often a game-changer, both for financial equity but also in terms of wellbeing through the process.

Official statistics show that divorce proceedings are taking up to a year to complete, and where the court needs to decide arrangements over children or over financial arrangements, it can take up to two years.  The data from the courts supports the Nuffield research, with official figures showing 40% of divorcing couples went to court without legal representation during the period January to March 2023.

In the latest reporting from the Official for National Statistics, the highest number of divorces for opposite-sex couples in 2022 was in those who had been married for more than 30 years, involving 6,683 couples.  Outside that group, the highest number of divorces were recorded by those who had been married for seven years, with 4,143 divorces, and the median duration for all same-sex couples was just under 13 years.  For same-sex divorces in the period, the median duration of marriage was 7.5 years for male same-sex couples and 6.3 years for female same-sex couples.

With high numbers of long marriages ending, combined with the long delays in the family courts, it’s important that couples also take the time to review their wills at the point of separation to be sure they reflect their wishes from that point on.  If they have not made a will, then this is the time to think about making one.

An existing will leaving everything to your spouse remains valid until the final order for divorce is confirmed, even if you have separated or received your conditional order on the divorce, as the marriage has not yet ended officially.  It is only after the final order on the divorce that an existing will, or the part referencing your ex-spouse, will become invalid.  The same principle applies if you do not have a will; until you have the final order, your yet-to-be ex-spouse is treated as if you were in an ongoing relationship which many separated couples may not realise and certainly will not be as they intended.

If you need legal advice about any of the issues raised in this article please do contact a member of the family team who will be pleased to advise you.