Are people happier in their marriages than they were 10 years ago? Headlines everywhere are proclaiming that divorce rates in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest rate since 1971, with only 90,871 divorces in the period 2018 – 2019.
All, however, is not as it seems.
We are going through turbulent political times, with political and economic uncertainty, such as that surrounding Brexit. This is having a huge financial impact, for example, in relation to property values. There is a well-established connection between property values and divorce rates – so when property values rise, so does the number of people initiating the divorce process – perhaps because the couple feel able to capitalise on value in a property by dividing the proceeds and moving on with their lives. But right now, people may be struggling to sell their property and this may cause husbands or wives to postpone either issuing divorce petitions, or applying for their Decree Absolute, the final stage of divorce, until there is more certainty.
The number of divorces among same sex couples, who have legally been able to marry since the law changed in 2014, also misleadingly does not form part of the number of divorces stated in such headlines.
People may also be waiting for the new ‘no-fault’ legislation, currently being debated in parliament, to go through. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (delayed by the recent general election) will prevent husbands or wives wishing to divorce from having to attribute blame to their spouse in order to prove that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. It will also remove the ability of one spouse to contest the decision to divorce, which may be enough of an incentive to wait until the law is passed.
There is also a backlog of divorce petitions held up at the courts, so it may well be that the figures are skewed by a number of divorces just not having been processed yet.
People are, also, increasingly choosing to live together without getting married, so while the number of divorces may have decreased, the number of people separating after having been in long-term relationships is, in all likelihood, increasing proportionately.
Stating, therefore, that divorce rates have fallen is too simplistic.
The fact that relationship breakdown is still continuing does not mean that couples cannot live ‘happily ever after’ whether they remain together or not. Preparation and early advice is key. Consider before marriage, whether you would feel more comfortable with a prenuptial agreement in place, making clear to you and your spouse where you would stand financially in the event that the relationship were to break down. Consider before purchasing a property together how you will own that property and whether you ought to record this in a Declaration of Trust, to avoid future conflict. Perhaps a Cohabitation Agreement would also be helpful. These are all matters on which the reputable Family team at Simons Muirhead and Burton are able to advise.
Equally, if it was just not meant to be, a sensitive and pragmatic approach to resolving how a separating couple will move forward – particularly where children are involved – is crucial to pave the way so that the family can move on and achieve their own version of ‘happily ever after’.