DON’T GET STUNG – HOW TO STAY ON TOP OF THE LEGAL AND FINANCIAL SIDE OF DIVORCE.
Note from editor: If you haven’t already, read Rosmary’s first article here.
Also see the attached image of the ‘Particulars of unreasonable behaviour’ of the divorce at the foot of the article. Enjoy…
The first thing I must stress here is; I am not legally trained. I am musician and a writer, not a lawyer, and I am only offering advice, information and tips based on my experience which inevitably will be very different from everybody else’s. Every divorce is individual and unique and what I write here does not constitute legal advice. You should always seek a solicitor’s expertise for that.
There are 2 main steps towards divorce. The first is the Decree Nisi, which is stamped when a judge agrees with the petition for divorce and either grants one party the ‘right’ to divorce the other (if one party is filing for divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour, for instance, as in my case) or the right to divorce if the marriage has irretrievably broken down and the parties have lived separately for two years or more. The second is the Decree Absolute, which is the final document which is stamped and agreed by a judge and is legally binding. You can ‘pull out’ after the Decree Nisi has been agreed because you still have to apply for the Decree Absolute (or your solicitor does it for you, if you have one), which you can do six weeks and a day after the Decree Nisi has been agreed. The Decree Absolute does not happen ‘automatically’; you have to apply for it.
One thing which I was unaware of is that the finances are a separate issue. The divorce is merely the document which says you are no longer married; it dissolves your marriage. A Financial Consent Order is the document which deals with the finances and is drawn up separately and independently of the divorce. It is then attached to the application for the Decree Absolute. I will touch on this later but it is my belief that this is the most important document of all and failure to have one can have wide reaching, and potentially catastrophic, consequences.
The other point I would make here is, do not believe all you read about solicitors being ‘rob dogs’ and just out to sting you for large quantities of money. There is good and bad in every profession (I know plenty of bad music teachers) and I am sure that there are good and bad solicitors. For an issue like divorce, however, it is my firm belief that you need legal expertise and advice all the way through the process. My solicitor was utterly brilliant and very reasonably priced. Okay, I am not going to lie, it is an expensive process (my ex husband was ordered to pay all costs pertaining to the divorce, which were £1610, and I had my own separate invoices from my solicitor for all the other advice etc. of £692 plus a down payment of £650 when I hired her). My ex husband and I also chose to go down the route of financial mediation (possibly avoidable and certainly not a requirement) which was an extra £600 each and in these days of no legal aid, it is all an expensive business.
Your solicitor should give you a full breakdown of their fees and a rough estimate of what it may cost so that you can take an informed decision on whether, and whom, to hire.
However I would strongly recommend that you do hire a solicitor. I had questions throughout the whole process which only a solicitor was able to answer, plus she was able to navigate the complicated Court system. In addition, I felt secure in the knowledge that if anything went wrong, she ‘had my back’; I had the added difficulty of not knowing whether my husband was going to flee to Colombia at any given point throughout the process and again, knowing that I had legal advice on hand, meant that this didn’t carry quite as much stress for me than if I hadn’t hired her. Okay, I know she couldn’t physically have gone to Colombia to track him down, but again, she would have been able to explain and assist in the legal side of things if this had happened.
I would really recommend begging, stealing and borrowing the money off friends and relatives in order to hire one. You can shop around for prices, or ask friends and relatives for recommendations of solicitors who they have used and been pleased with, and don’t be afraid to ask these friends and relatives how much it cost. If paying for it is really an issue, ask if the firm offers payment by instalments. I was fortunate to be able to afford the costs outright, but my firm of solicitors did offer payment by instalments. Be sure to check the terms and conditions attached to this, of course!
So, here is my own personal experience and journey of the actual process of divorce!
The first thing I would like to say is that the whole process, as well as being painful, upsetting and stressful, was a huge exercise in ‘myth busting’! So many facts which I was sure I knew as ‘racing certainties’ were literally blown out of the water.
I first visited a solicitor in February 2015, a few weeks after Andy walked out. At that point all he had taken were his computer, his passport, three tee shirts, a handful of underwear and the clothes he was standing up in when he left on 23rd December. He had also made a couple of return trips, one of which was to collect a spice rack, which he could have easily replaced off Amazon for £10! Unfathomable!
Tip number one; shop around for a solicitor who offers a ‘one off consultation’ for a fixed fee, if you just need basic, initial information, like I did. My solicitor’s normal rate was £185 per hour but she offered a one off hour’s ‘first consultation’ for £90. This hour was incredibly useful and I was very quickly armed with all the relevant information which I needed about my current legal position and what would happen if anything changed. Equally, if you have had a solicitor recommended, who you are considering using, ask if they offer this service. Most seem to.
It was particularly pertinent for me because I was in ‘limbo’; my husband had left, blaming me and citing a raft of untrue and hurtful accusations against me and was living away from the home but was still paying for everything relating to the marital home which he paid for before he left; the mortgage, the Council Tax for 2 people, the Sky TV package and the internet connection. Plus all his clothes and possessions were still at our home. This mystified my solicitor and she was convinced that he hadn’t intended to leave when he did, as it all seemed unplanned, and she felt that there was a strong possibility that he may return, as he had taken hardly anything with him (other than the curious selection of inappropriate clothing and the spice rack).
Tip number two – be aware that, if the house/mortgage is in joint names, and your spouse/partner has left without a credible reason and there is any possibility that he/she may come back/want to come back, you are in a very difficult position because in the eyes of the law, he/she is fully entitled to do so, because they are joint owners of that property. If you are getting divorced and are not planning on getting a Financial Consent Order in place (I come onto this later) which states that the house is the property of one of the parties, the other party can technically return at any time. Equally, with the mortgage, if it is joint names and partner leaves who pays the mortgage (as in my case) and then stops paying, the other person named on the mortgage (i.e. me in this instance) is liable for the payments. What I did in this instance was to email the Building Society explaining that my husband had left the property and would they immediately write to me if he reneged on a payment? They assured me that they would.
This is why it is a good idea to take advice and get yourself armed with as much information as possible. It is also a good idea to try and pin the estranged partner down as to what their plans are; you might then know how likely or unlikely these scenarios are and prepare yourself for either eventuality.
Tip number three: as painful as it may be, try and and ask the errant partner what their plans are face to face or over the phone when they’re not expecting the question (‘forewarned is forearmed’ and all that). My solicitor advised me to do this and I followed her instructions, with some interesting results. ‘Catching him on the hop’ put him at a slight disadvantage and, having not had time to prepare an answer, I was able to glean information out of him which he might have managed to avoid telling me, if he had been prepared for the question. The most shocking piece of news was discovered this way; by asking him over the phone to have Chrissie, our dog, for some of the Christmas holidays in 2015, he was forced to admit that he wouldn’t be in the country. He was clearly uncomfortable and tried to dodge the question. I realised that I had ‘caught him on the hoof’ and pressed the issue; this was when I discovered that the scam I believed he had got embroiled in, with the Colombian woman from the internet chat room, had gone to new heights; he admitted that he was going out to Colombia to visit her for Christmas. I wouldn’t have known this had I not telephoned and asked him a question out of the blue.
The first thing which became apparent at my initial consultation was that the law surrounding divorce is basically ‘no blame’. My solicitor made no bones about the fact that, although my husband had walked out citing ludicrous reasons and accusing me of all sorts of untruths, I was entitled to nothing ‘extra’ under the law. Another myth busted!
At one point my husband had sent me a text message saying presumably I’d been having an affair when I said that I was going to my Choir practice or my drama group – pretty incredulous when you think that he had been on four of the Choir Concert Tour holidays with me so knew everyone in the choir and knew this to be a complete impossibility; it was the same with the people in my drama group, all of whom he knew well, and it was all even more unbelievable when I eventually discovered exactly what he had been up to! My solicitor found the ‘opening windows when I vacuumed the house’ and ‘crystal glasses in the dishwasher’ as the reasons for him leaving absolutely astounding but she said, in spite of all that had happened, the law would expect a ‘half and half split of the assets’; that is, sell the home and have half the value of it each and I was entitled to half of the pension which he had been paying into. She agreed that in my situation, as someone who worked from home, I needed to keep the house and that is what she would fight for, if necessary, but I was to be under no illusion that keeping the house was my ‘right’.
This was the second misconception. I had assumed that I, as the ‘victim’, would have ‘the law on my side.’ Not so! I asked her, as an aside, if it would have made any difference if we’d had dependent children. Apparently not! Another misconception. My solicitor said that most women in this particular circumstance do remain in the home, in order to provide stability for the children, but this is not a ‘given’; it has to be part of the settlement and is not a God given right. Another reason for you to seek early legal advice; there are a lot of myths out there surrounding financial settlements pertaining to divorce and it is wise to know where you stand from the start. I was shocked at what I learnt in that hour and whilst I was very glad I went, I came away quite unsettled as it had not comforted or reassured me in any way. If anything, it made me feel less secure. But the main issue is, I knew exactly where I stood.
Tip number four: be prepared for ‘the worst’ and formulate an ‘exit strategy’. I was astonished to find that the law is now ‘no blame’ and there are no ‘victims’ and perpetrators’, no ‘good guys and bad guys’. There are only ‘guys’. You might not like what you hear, but at least you know where you stand.
Once I discovered that there was a chance I could lose my home and thus my place of work (I teach music from home) I was able to start looking at a Plan B. I had my house valued (I had four local estate agents come in and got a range of valuations; these were all free so it won’t cost you anything to do this and I strongly advise that you do it, so that you know early on what the value is in case you have to have a Plan B) and began looking at alternative, cheaper accommodation on www. rightmove.co.uk and also on local estate agent’s websites.
Due to the nature of the half and half split issue, I was forced to look at properties for the half the value of my own home. There was precious little out there and what there was was all inconveniently situated for my students and outside of Solihull, where I live.
A lot of the properties were maisonettes and flats and were clearly unsuitable properties from which to run my business. So I then needed to come up with a plan of how I was going to continue teaching and be able to carry on my livelihood/career. To this end, I started enquiring about rooms in church halls etc. from which I could teach. I fortunately found a very nice room at the local Methodist Church who were willing to rent the room to me if necessary. In the end it didn’t come to that but at least I knew that if the worst came to the worst, I could continue to work.
All this for me was a nightmare scenario; I could literally lose everything. It was bad enough thinking about losing my home but losing my business as well, or seeing a severe drop in my income through having to rent a room, was so galling. I was appalled at how unfair the system is; I had done nothing, absolutely nothing, to deserve this; I was not the one who had walked out. I was not the one who had ended the marriage on a whim. I was not the one who had been lying and cheating and sneaking around, yet here I was, on the cusp of losing everything.
You need to be prepared for this and don’t listen to other people’s stories either. A lot of people will tell you that ‘their sister’s/cousin’s/work colleague’s marriage had ended and they got this, that and the other’. I got totally bedazzled by the amount of different stories and accounts of divorce settlements which I heard. Don’t listen to any of them. As I said at the beginning of this article, each divorce is different. There are processes to go through to reach a conclusion which is acceptable to all parties and the Courts and it is totally individual to you. Plus, all these accounts were ‘second and third hand’; there was a chance that all of them had lost something ‘in translation’.
June 2015 was the ‘game changer’ for me. I discovered exactly what my husband had been up to; he had become involved in a sordid, squalid internet ‘romance’ with a Colombian woman he admitted he had ‘met’ in an internet Spanish chat room. I found many emails exchanged between them from the August before he left and hundreds overall; some of them were extremely pornographic. I was very shocked but at least now, at last, after six months of not knowing and ‘treading water’, I knew why he had left. Clearly it was linked to this.
I met with my solicitor and she agreed that this altered things. I thought I would be able to divorce him on the grounds of adultery but in fact there wasn’t enough ‘evidence’ for this so I had to file for divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. Another interesting revelation!
Tip number five: if you think that you will be able to file for divorce because you have ‘evidence’ of wrongdoing etc., make a list of what you think are the grounds for this. This will save your solicitor a lot of time (and therefore will save you money!). I was surprised at what my solicitor ‘kept’ and what she ‘threw out’. Typically your solicitor will use five or six points; ensure that you draw up a long and comprehensive list so that your solicitor is able to ‘cherry pick’ what they use. The basic rule of thumb is put down anything that you consider ‘unreasonable’; people view things differently and the law allows you to include anything which you as an individual deems unreasonable. Your solicitor should have the ultimate say though as they are the expert in knowing what a judge/Court will consider is unreasonable.
I am attaching my ‘particulars for divorce’ to this article to give you an idea of the sorts of things to include and what one actually looks like.
The first step was then to draw up the Divorce petition and send it to my husband. I cannot deny, this stage was as sweet as nectar to me. I had discovered that he was going to Colombia in early July 2015 (allegedly to attend a Spanish speaking school in Bogota as I had discovered an email booking for a course and a hotel room) and so I was able to have my solicitor send him notification of the petition so that he arrived back from Colombia to find it on his door mat! He had 7 days in which to respond to the Court papers pertaining to it, which he didn’t do. He eventually did respond and agreed with my petition and agreed to pay the costs pertaining to the divorce ( which ultimately amounted to £1610).
This was a huge relief as well as a ‘personal victory’. Whatever he said to me in private about me being to blame and that I was the cause of him walking away, he had acknowledged on a legally binding, public document, that, in fact, he was the one to blame. What was more, I had insisted that the most pornographic of the emails which he had received from his ‘lover’ (entitled ‘breast orgasm’, whatever one of those is!) was included in this and my solicitor did a sterling job in ensuring that it was. So the disgusting, seedy nature of what he had been up to behind my back was available for the whole world to see. I am not going to lie and pretend that there was no other motivation for this than revenge, which apparently is a ‘dish best served cold’. This is so true. I had had to wait six months for my ‘day in Court’ (excuse the pun) but it was worth every second of that wait. Plus, he was now fully aware that I knew of the squalid, grubby little double life he had been living. As William Congreve so beautifully stated in ‘The Mourning Bride’: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorn’d”.
The next stage was having the Decree Nisi stamped and agreed by the Courts. This document ‘gives you the right’ to divorce your spouse. This happened on 11th November! It’ll definitely be Remembrance Day for me now! As you can see, this took a few months. My solicitor was very efficient but the Courts are slow.
Tip Number Six: don’t think it will be a quick process. If you are filing for divorce like I did and there are assets/finances to take care of and settle, it will be a lengthier process. Mine was ten months from the filing of the petition to him to receiving the Decree Absolute.
After the Decree Nisi had been agreed, my solicitor was adamant that the finances were settled before she applied for the Decree Absolute. She said that she never suggested that a client apply for Absolute until a Financial Consent Order had been drawn up. An FCO sets out what both parties want from the financial side of the divorce and this is where the assets are discussed and divided up.
This, for me, was the biggest revelation and I am so pleased that I had hired legal advice. It would have been worth all her fees just for this. If you do not have a Financial Consent Order, either party can make claim upon the other for any part of the assets/estate/bank accounts which are joint (i.e. the house) or to which the other party is entitled to under law (i.e. pensions) way after the divorce has been granted and you have gone your separate ways.
This was very sobering indeed. Once I got chatting to other people about the financial arrangements for their own divorces, I discovered some shocking truths. One school friend went down the ‘2 years irretrievable breakdown, quickie divorce off the internet’ route without an FCO. Her husband gave her a verbal agreement that she could keep the house. Ten years later he rocked up completely out of the blue, wanting his half of the house, as he had met someone else and wanted the equity in order to buy a new home for him and his new partner. So she had to sell it and give him his half. Quite a lot of people I have spoken to have also not got an FCO in place and seem to think that a verbal agreement is sufficient and because they are divorced, that is the end of it and the status of the finances which exists on the day the Decree Absolute is granted continues unaffected. Wrong! The only thing which guarantees your financial security with no comebacks from the other party is a Financial Consent Order, where it states that neither of you can claim against the other after the Decree Absolute is agreed and stamped by the Courts.
My solicitor suggested Financial Mediation as the route to take for deciding how the assets should be divided up. As a process I did not value it at all; it was expensive (£600 each for three meetings which also included the drawing up of the documents for use by my solicitor in preparing the FCO) and I noticed from the paperwork which we received that it was really more for people either with children to consider or who had a lot of financial assets to take into consideration. Another school friend of mine who had followed the FCO route said that he and his wife didn’t bother with mediation (even though they had children to consider) and drew up the paperwork themselves for the solicitors to use and this worked fine.
However my solicitor was at pains to point out that with the Courts being under increasing time constraints and pressures, judges are keen to keep litigants out of court and if you use the Financial Mediation process, this normally guarantees that you will be kept out of court and it should all just be a matter of ‘rubber stamping’.
My solicitor suggested an outside organisation which facilitated the mediation and your solicitor will be able to do the same, or you can look them up on the internet. I found the Mediator very patronising and he initially treated us rather like imbeciles; at the end of the first meeting I did point out that my husband and I were both educated people and didn’t need basic things like how to work out how much money we had left over at the end of the month explaining to us. Once some ground rules had been established between the three of us, the meetings were much smoother and we achieved more.
Tip number seven: if you go down the Financial Mediation route, don’t think that the Mediator is ‘God’. They are not lawyers. They have been trained in elements of law but they are essentially volunteers who get paid for delivering this service. Our Mediator initially said that we would need six sessions! It was immediately obvious that we did not. I told him that it was my opinion we would only need three, which was accurate. You can do a lot of the preparation at home to save time (and therefore money!). You can get originals or copies of bank statements/shares/pension projections/utility bills etc. collated before the first meeting in order to hurry the process along. I saved around £400 by doing some spadework at home before the first meeting and by saying from the outset we did not need all the sessions suggested.
Where the Mediation did come into it’s own was connected to the issue surrounding the manner in which we wished to split the assets. My husband said that he was happy for me to have the house when the mortgage was paid off so that I could keep my place of work and maintain the ability to continue with my livelihood, if I waived my rights to half his pension. I was very content with this as the outcome; for a start it meant that I definitely had a roof over my head and it kept my business intact, and the house was worth a lot more than his pension pot. The Mediator was quite surprised at this, as usually it was a 50/50 split, or 40/60 etc.if one party decides to be more generous or waives their right to something else. Going through the process, however torturous, proved to the Judge who eventually saw the application for the Decree Absolute with the FCO attached that we had gone into it with our eyes open and both parties knew what they were agreeing to.
Once the mediation was finished, my solicitor received the paperwork from the Mediation service and applied for the Decree Absolute on my behalf, with a Financial Consent Order attached based on the outcome of the mediation.
Throughout the whole process, my husband had chosen not to be represented by a solicitor. I have no idea why this was. You don’t have to be, of course; it is not a requirement. However it is the ‘norm’. I can only assume he couldn’t afford it (having made a complete mess of his finances, by agreeing to keep me in the marital home by paying the mortgage and household insurance plus renting a maisonette for himself in Coventry!) or the extent of his internet activity was much worse than I had knowledge of and he knew that if he went to a solicitor and they suggested that he contest the divorce (which is what any solicitor worth their weight in salt would have done in this instance) he would presumably have had to reveal the true extent of his ‘double life’. However my solicitor wrote to him every step of the way and fortunately he responded.
COSTS OF DIVORCE
These are the costs of my divorce. Every solicitor/every divorce will be different and will have their own costs; this is just to give you an idea of the amounts of money involved so that you can begin to take an informed decision on your own chosen path.
DIRECT COSTS OF DIVORCE (i.e. application for Decrees Nisi/papers pertaining to my divorce petition, letters to my husband from my solicitor linked to the divorce) £1610. My husband agreed to pay all these costs at the outset and indicated so on the court papers which he was sent, explaining that I was filing for divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. He could have chosen to have stated that he would not pay, which would have then resulted in my solicitor and I pursuing him further in an attempt to change this and make him fully responsible for these costs. My solicitor also ensured that he only ever received the one bill, which was a very cute move; she sent his bill after the Decree Nisi had been agreed and she included all costs up to that point plus anticipated costs, so that she was more likely to receive payment from him, only sending one invoice. Surprisingly, he paid ‘on the nail’.
COSTS TO ME: I was charged £650 at the outset, which were ‘hire fees’/monies on account and the initial work involved in drawing up the divorce petition etc..plus emails/phone calls between us. I received another bill of £692 which was further time spent on paperwork for the drawing up of the Financial Consent Order/phone calls/letters between us. The final invoice was £90 after the Decree Absolute was agreed. So costs to me were £1432. Obviously it helped enormously that he agreed to pay the costs which he did and it is worth trying to pursue the other party to agree to this at the outset. I stated earlier in this piece about helping yourself by drawing up lists etc.. and I received discounts along the way from my solicitor for doing a lot of the spadework for her i.e. the points for the unreasonable behaviour.
MEDIATION COSTS: £1200 between us, £600 each. As I stated earlier, there are ‘pros and cons’ with the mediation. I am not sure that I got value for money; however I think where it did score was that it kept us out of court to ‘argue the toss’ over the splitting of the assets, as we had gone down an unusual route with this for people in our position. On balance I would probably use it again but keep it down to two or even one session, knowing now what I do about the process.
I strongly recommend that you ‘shop around’ for a solicitor. I discovered that my solicitor’s costs were very low compared to some. If there is a lot of dispute between parties, this will inevitably increase the costs; a friend of mine who had a very acrimonious and bitterly contested divorce received a bill for £12,000. Ensure that you ask for a ‘ball park’ figure when you ask for a quote. They will give you one based on a non- contested, straight forward divorce most likely, so bear that in mind. The costs may increase if it is contested.
I hope that all this has been helpful.
You are going through a terrible time and may feel lonely and isolated. Here is one person who understands, who knows that feeling and so I say to you, I am with you all of the way, my friend.
The next article will be based on the things which are said to you by other people, and the misconceptions about how folk in our situation cope with it.
Until then, goodbye, my friend.
Rosemary Worsley is a 51 year old private singing and piano teacher from Solihull. She is the former Poetry and Arts Editor of The Birmingham Journal of Literature and Language and is currently writing a memoir about her experience at the hands of her ex husband. When she isn’t teaching or writing, she enjoys a wide variety of activities which includes treading the boards with Union Theatre drama group, singing with Solihull Chandos Choir and performing with St Alphege Musical Production Company. She is also a member of a Book Club and dances with Central Stage School.
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