Info & Advice

How long do financial agreements take to agree between separating and divorcing couples and what slows them down?

You have sat down with your soon-to-be-ex and looked at your finances together.   You agreed what should be done about the savings, the debts and the house, so why does it seem to take an age and significant expenditure on legal fees to make that agreement legally-binding?

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We reached an agreement between ourselves – why is it taking so long to finalise?

After a relationship has ended, if it was formally recognised by a Civil Partnership (CP) or legal marriage (the only kind that matters) then you and your departing partner/spouse want finality.  You want to get through Splitting Up without going back over things again years later.   Neither of you want the other looming out of the gloom in years to come, looking for a pound of flesh like a hungry zombie.   It most likely would want an arm and a leg and do your head in too!  Figurative-speaking, that is.  By the time that a financial claim is made, you might have earned a lot more in your pension, invested in your home or business or lost relatives who left you an inheritance.

Surely the law recognises that we have moved on?

The leading case about a delayed claim was between Mr Vince, once moneyless New-Age Traveller and later green-energy entrepreneur and millionaire had moved on, but 30 years later found Ms Wyatt, his ex-wife from decades before asking to share his wealth.  No longer of ‘no fixed abode’, he had clearly moved on after splitting up, but did the law recognise that?

Although the case of Vince v Wyatt involved the extreme of a millionaire entrepreneur and his ex-wife of more than two decades wanting a share of his after-acquired wealth, it serves as a stark example of why people should get a deal done which is legally binding.

It may appear to defy common-sense that somebody can make a claim 20 or 30 years after splitting up, but they can.

It is what you have when you go to court that most matters, not the resources from the time of the marriage.

Why are former partners allowed to claim more money or assets years after splitting up?

The reason that there is no time-bar to family law finance claims is that the court has a role in protecting the disadvantaged.   Admittedly it takes money to bring a claim and since Legal Aid for family finance claims is virtually non-existent, people need to be self-reliant to bring a claim.  However, once the hurdle of representing yourself or finding enough money to hire a family law solicitor has been overcome and a claim made, then a judge will need to decide what is fair and reasonable.  That is based on present circumstances as well as some historic factors.

The court is not allowed to dismiss long-delayed claims out of hand, even if a couple had nothing when they split up.  Half of nothing is nothing.  Even 100% of nothing is still nothing.  The maths was clear: there may be nothing to share arising out of the marriage, so any claim would be based on what was acquired after a couple split up.  Years after.

If people agree something at the time you are splitting up, surely that would be respected?

It was even possible that an informal agreement had been reached when they split up, but solicitors files are eventually destroyed and there was no record of a court order.

Had there been a court order dismissing both of their claims based on their marriage, that would have stopped the case in its tracks and saved Mr Vince the expense of funding a case to the highest court in the land and then making an economic decision to pay his ex-wife enough to have a home of her own.   That cost was measured in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

OK – we need an agreement, but why does it take so long?  Are the lawyers stringing it out to make money from me?

As mentioned earlier, for a deal to be unquestionably binding, it needs to be approved by a judge and made into a financial remedy order by consent i.e. ‘a consent order’.  If all is done and dusted, then the order is called a ‘clean break’ with the dismissal of future claims.

To approve a deal, the judge must know that certain criteria have been met and the judge must believe:

  • The agreement meets the needs of the parties and any children so far as is possible within the resources that they have
  • Both people have openly disclosed their circumstances
  • Both are reaching the agreement of their own free will – there is no duress/unfair pressure
  • Both people understand what they are doing/getting/giving up
  • Both people have had the opportunity to take independent legal advice before signing-off on the deal
  • The deal is within the range of potentially fair settlements in the experience of the judge

It is making sure those criteria are met which is what takes the effort from a qualified family lawyer.

Couldn’t the Judge trust us and show us some respect?   Why all this palaver?

The judges who are allowed to approve financial arrangement will usually have had many years of experience as practising lawyers.

It does not take many weeks working as a lawyer to recognise that not everybody behaves decently and fairly when their relationship breaks down.  Splitting up is not emotionless and deals are not done in a sanitised vacuum.  Many people will consult a solicitor and say ‘This is the deal, he/she is fine with it…’ and expect everybody to go along with that.  They have done the job of persuading their ex, possibly from a position of dominance either of finance, knowledge or personality.   Even if they told the truth about their finances, they might have spun the presentation so as to make something grossly unfair appear logical and acceptable.

If they feel the breakdown of the marriage was the other person’s fault, then their view of ‘fairness’ may not match that of a neutral person and even trying to be fair, does not mean they succeeded.

The solicitors should not simply word the deal in an acceptable format for the judge, but are responsible for showing that the criteria have been met.   That is not an easy task, particularly if the person getting the worse terms is unrepresented.

How does the judge know if the financial agreement between separated or divorced partners is fair and reasonable?

Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 set out all the considerations for what might need to be taken into account.

To help the judge apply those factors, there is a Summary of Financial Circumstances form which at 23 pages takes effort to complete.  It previously only amounted to a short summary of 6 pages or so, but was expanded so that fewer clarifying questions would need to be raised by the judge.   Reducing the time spent on judges  deals was the main priority and the considerable additional expense of having lawyers complete the expanded form was not a consideration for the Court Service.  Such things never are.

Do separating couple really need two different lawyers?

Sometimes people ask ‘Surely we don’t need two sets of lawyers?’ and the answer is generally that they do.

When only one person is professionally represented, the judge will scrutinise the terms more closely and probably ask the questions that a competent lawyer would have raised.   If the judge can see that both people are represented and if a local judge knowing that the firms are family law specialists, then the concerns about meeting the criteria will be lessened and the deal more likely to be approved.

A sole lawyer will be expected to have jumped through hoops to show that the deal has been arrived at fairly.  If that burden is shared by both being represented, then it will be assumed that the advice given to both parties is that the deal meets the criteria.

If we were not married, do we need a separation agreement?

Deciding to have a formal agreement is about managing risk.    If people have them, Separation Agreements for unmarried couples ought to meet the same criteria as consent order applications, but as the rights of unmarried people are not as general and largely relate to property claims or support for children, the risk of not having an Agreement is often considered less.   Formerly married people have no time-limits to regard, but general civil claims such as regarding property may expire.   That is beyond the scope of a blog, so asking a qualified family lawyer is the way to find out.


With so many criteria to meet and with complex paperwork to prepare and present to the court to get a binding arrangement, it can take some time, trouble and expense.

Even with people working cooperatively to get through the process, it can take considerable effort and if one (or indeed both) representatives finds themselves out of their depth with the complexities due to inexperience or initial over-confidence, getting the deal over the line and approved can be very difficult.  Sometimes, engaging a cheap / inexperienced lawyer is a false economy.   Knowing the process in theory without applying experience to spot the nuances or potential difficulties prolongs the process and a lawyer seeking to avoid responsibility can cause frustration for their own client as well as their opposite number.   It is worth engaging a lawyer who is realistic and experienced rather than the cheapest as unnecessary delays have a cost not measured in purely financial terms.

The expense of getting a trustworthy and competent representative with whom you can work to get a realistic  outcome near your objective should be regarded as insurance against potentially larger and more costly claims in the future.

However, the alternative of leaving arrangements informal or in an unapproved private agreement carries with it the risk of claims into the future when the expense of resolving the problem may be far greater and far riskier.

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