Signed a Pre-nuptial Agreement with Peter Andre.With our media now devoting vast swathes of newsprint to what can only be described as ‘celebritainment’, it is clear that nothing interests us more than the divorces of the rich and famous. Maybe it is part of the psyche of the Great British Public that a huge number of magazines and newspapers are awash with stories about the very public separations of Cheryl Cole, Christina Aguilera, Courtney Cox, Sandra Bullock, Scarlett Johansson, to name but a few without whispering the ubiquitous and clearly lucrative journalistic festival that is Katie and Peter.
Reading about these couples, it is easy to forget that without the rich and the famous, it would be difficult for family law in the UK to progress: in short, it is only because celebrities and the wealthy can afford to fight out their battles in the highest British courts that the principles applied to their cases can then be used to see how courts might deal with the assets and income of normal everyday folk.
One important example is pre-nuptial agreements. Once the exclusive preserve of the Hollywood elite, more and more people are deciding that before they tie the knot, they need to discuss and agree what should happen in the event that things don’t work out. Although I know your hearts won’t bleed for the family law practitioner when I say this, but as a lawyer advising before marriage, it is easy to feel like the spectre at the feast. At the very time that the heads of the bride and groom are filled with plans for seventeen foot pink cakes or ceremonies in birdcages, you have to focus their minds upon navigating the path if things break down – a scenario the happy couple will probably not want to contemplate.
It is clear is that the legal recognition of pre-nuptial agreements is of fundamental social importance. Relationship breakdown remains an important concern of the current government as mechanisms are investigated to save public money and try to limit the number of people slugging it out in court. If there was a way of ensuring legal certainty in case of a separation, there would be less strain on the public purse combined with lower levels of distress to couples and their families.
The legal status of pre-nuptial agreements is changing rapidly and for anyone contemplating marriage, careful thought needs to be applied to how to deal with these and legal advice should be obtained months before the big day. However, in recent years, cases have determined that upon separation and divorce, pre-nuptial agreements can be a vital consideration when a court decides how to divide wealth, making advice and drafting often a worthwhile option.
In a long awaited ‘big money’ pre-nuptial case last year, the Supreme Court stated that people agreeing to and signing a pre-nuptial agreement should be held to it upon subsequent divorce if it is drawn up correctly, unless it would be unfair to do so. The current legal status of pre-nuptial agreements can therefore be summarised with the following quote:
‘The court should give effect to a nuptial agreement that is freely entered into by each party with a full appreciation of its implications unless in the circumstances prevailing it would not be fair to hold the parties to their agreement’.
So, whilst these contracts are not automatically binding in the UK at present, if drafted and completed correctly, they can bind the couple signing up to the terms.
Certainly, family lawyers across the country have reported a significant increase in pre-nuptial work and a change in the way that elements are negotiated. As befits a more mature and family focused environment, couples commonly agree terms with their respective solicitors in meetings together, called ‘collaborative’ meetings, which serves to underline the co-operative approach to an agreement, in line with the bride and groom’s other wedding plans.
The Law Commission is due to report this year upon whether Parliament should take a closer look at making pre-nuptial agreements automatically binding, but in the meantime, these contracts are serving to influence decisions at court for many of us on a regular basis.
All of this demonstrates that whilst celebrity magazines can pick over the most salacious details of celebrity break-ups to impart a message that money can’t buy you happiness, maybe it also shows us that in these situations, rich and famous people are just as vulnerable as we are. However, unlike us, they have the choice to explore the strengths of their arguments in the highest courts available and this is something we can all benefit from.
If you need legal help about a forthcoming marriage, or about any other family law issue, please contact Daniel Bennett, Eileen Sutton or Joanna Illingworth for expert advice.