Let's split the cat

9th January 1998 at 00:00
In the first of two articles, Elaine Williams looks at the cost of divorce

Half of the calls made to stress helplines run by teaching unions are from teachers who say their personal relationships or marriages are falling apart. Marriage breakdown is a national phenomenon with one in three UK marriages ending in divorce - the third highest number in Europe.

Sound financial decision-making can be difficult enough at the best of times, but in the heat of separation there is a danger of overlooking the long-term effects of settlements or any concessions made. Divorce should carry a wealth warning.

The choice of lawyer is therefore crucial, and an independent financial adviser (IFA) can provide rational guidance to people who may feel unable to be rational themselves.

Jo Smith, an IFA with Pretty Financial Ltd, London, says that both parties need to sit down with an adviser and set out what they want from the divorce. "Where are you going to live and how do you want to live? - these are the things you need to think about," she says. "Afterwards it will be too late. "

Paul Calkin, an IFA with Calkin, Pattinson and Co Ltd, London, says couples should try to remain on speaking terms to keep legal costs down. He says: "Going through the courts is expensive, so couples should try mediation. However, if a divorce is going to get nasty then you need to find out as much as possible about your spouse's finances.

"Legal costs can absorb a phenomenal amount of cash so avoid arguing over small amounts. If two solicitors are exchanging letters at Pounds 150 a time over trifles then both parties are losing out. Solicitors will argue on your behalf until the cows come home."

Chris Lathan, an IFA with Byrne Williams in Milton Keynes, himself went through an acrimonious divorce and ended up with Pounds 7,000 of legal costs. He and his wife had agreed to split everything equally "but somehow things deteriorated". He said: "What we ended up with wasn't much different from what we had agreed in the first place, but at one point I sent off three solicitor's letters trying to get my daughter's cat back."

Mr Lathan advises couples to be vigilant in protecting their futures from the point of separation. Properties owned under a joint tenancy revert to one partner if the other dies while they are separated but not divorced.

Fiona Price Partners, a London IFA company which has produced a "Divorced Woman's Survival Pack" warns couples with joint accounts to inform banks or building societies only to accept instructions from both parties in case one should decide to withdraw all the cash or build up debts.

If maintenance payments are part of a divorce settlement, then according to Ann Walters, an IFA with Slee Blackwell Solicitors in Devon, life cover should be taken out on those payments so that in the event of death the maintenance is protected. She says: "This is particularly important where young children are concerned."

Tony Byrne of Byrne Williams, an IFA company based in Milton Keynes, believes partners should also consider taking out a class F land charge if a home has been in one name only. He tells the story of a teacher client whose husband owned a business and their home. She had taken 10 years out of work to bring up their children and was teaching part-time when the marriage failed. She took out a land charge which meant her husband could not sell their former home without her permission.

"After the divorce she increased her teaching hours and bought her own house, but she still had a mortgage to pay even though she was coming up to retirement," he explains. "When her husband tried to sell their former home for demolition, she went back to her solicitor. In the end she got 40 per cent of the proceeds of the sale, which meant she could pay off her mortgage."

* Solicitors Family Law Association PO Box 302, Orpington BR6 8QX. Tel: 01689 850227Divorced Women's Survival Kit Pounds 2.95 from Fiona Price Partners, 33 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AA . Tel: 0171 430 0366 Next week: Pensions - the hidden asset in divorce

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