Under British law, love lost means labor
Falling in love can be easy, but in England, once the rings are exchanged and the vows spoken, it can be a real financial and legal snarl to fall back out.
Solicitors’ fees, support payments in the all-powerful pound and a drawn-out separation process are not things American airmen might think about when touching bended knee to English soil or accepting an engagement ring from Harrods.
But they’re the kinds of things former Air Force staff sergeant Xavier Richardson says he wishes he knew about before he married an English citizen in the 1980s.
In order to get a divorce from his wife after they separated in 2001, Richardson said he had to struggle through a two-year battle to make the split legal, a process that cost him close to 10,000 pounds in court and lawyers’ fees.
“When it does go wrong, it can be a real financial burden,” Richardson said.
But even though Richardson’s plight resulted from an acrimonious split, it doesn’t take a bitter breakup to drag out a divorce, English family attorney Elisabeth Pacey said. She said that is because of a simple tenet of British marriage law: Love will get you into wedlock, but a lack of love will not necessarily get you out.
“The more difficult ones are when they come to court and say they don’t love each other anymore,” Pacey said. “They’re in a bit of a tricky situation.”
In fact, a person has to claim his or her partner has engaged in either adultery, unreasonable behavior or desertion in order to be granted an immediate divorce, Pacey said — though the third is rarely cited.
If an aggrieved wife or husband isn’t willing to claim one of the three — i.e. if the marriage just isn’t working for the couple — the only way out is to separate for a minimum of two years, Pacey said.
At the end of that time, if both sides agree to the divorce, they can then file for what is considered the “quickie” divorce in England, she said. If both sides don’t agree, however, then the two have to live separately for a total of five years before one side alone can sever the relationship.
Ironically, that often makes adultery the quickest and least costly basis for a divorce, Pacey said. No infidelity has to be actually proven to the court, other than the admittance of adultery by one side of a couple, she said.
For Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Johnstone, of the 48th Fighter Wing’s safety office, that caveat meant only about 700 pounds in legal fees and nine months of waiting for paperwork to clear, she said.
“Personally, I didn’t find it difficult at all, but it all depends on what the grounds for divorce are,” she said. “My husband admitted to committing adultery.”
Still, Pacey said, even after a divorce is granted, a couple is not done with the separation process. Splitting money and making child-custody decisions can draw out the separation and cost more money, especially if the situation is contentious, she said.
“If you want to litigate all the way through … it can be anywhere as much as 20,000 pounds,” Pacey said.
American clients of Pacey’s going through those stages also often find English custody laws “antiquated,” because they tend to inherently favor rights for the mother, she said.
Richardson said that, though help is available for airmen when going into a marriage with a British citizen, it’s those types of gritty details he would like to have known before things went sour.
Where to go
Help for airmen considering a divorce in the United Kingdom can be found at base legal offices, where pamphlets, advice and lists of solicitors are available.
Airmen also can contact the Citizens Advice Bureau at: www.citizensadvice.org.uk or the Solicitors Family Law Association at: www.resolution.org.uk
By the numbers
Divorce statistics for England and Wales:
Number of divorces (2003): 153,490
Divorce rate (2003): 14.0 per 1,000
Average duration of marriage (2003): 11.3 years
Average age for divorce (2004): Men: 42.7 Women: 40.2
Group with the highest divorce rate (2004): Women 25-29 years old (30.3 per 1,000)
Percentage of divorces granted to wife (2004): 69; of those, most common grounds was unreasonable behavior of husband (52 percent)
Most common grounds for divorces granted to husband (2004): two years separation (31 percent)
Percentage of men married:
1991: 602003: 532031: 42 (projected)Percentage of men divorced:
1991: 62003: 82031: 9 (projected)Sources: Office for National Statistics, Government Actuary’s Department