We often hear about wealthy couples getting divorced in the press, but why does it hit the headlines? Well, apart from our fascination with celebrity lifestyle and ‘how the other half lives’, these cases can have important legal significance. The reason for this is that the big money cases throw up issues that don’t often surface in the more average divorce case (although as family lawyers we would say there is never a norm!). For example, wealth brought into a marriage, complex business arrangements, the enforceability of pre-nuptial agreements, jurisdiction and confidentiality are all issues that are often hotly contested in high net worth divorces.
That is not to say that these issues don’t exist for other divorcing couples – often they do, but the cost of pursuing them all the way through the court system is extreme. It is only in a handful of cases where the end justifies the means.
The UK is reputed for its multi-million pound settlements. The largest pay out to date is around £100-£200 million paid to Galina Besharova by Boris Berezovsky, the Russion Oligarch. Other than that, the Charman case saw a settlement of £48 million and Heather Mills famously received a £24.3 million settlement.
In America, Reuters have reported that Oklahoma County Court is currently hearing what may result in the biggest ever settlement. Dubbed the ‘Billion Dollar Divorce’, this is the case of Harold Hamm, the oil tycoon. It has captured public imagination across the pond, here in the UK. Hamm’s company is said to be worth around $28 billion and he is said to have amassed a $19 billion fortune during the years of his marriage. In accordance with Oklahoma law, Hamm is at risk of a 50:50 split of that $19 billion. Legally speaking, this case will have no impact on us but the very size of this fortune makes the case fascinating and it will no doubt be reported here over the nine weeks that the trial is set to last.
On this side of the Atlantic, the press reports the UK’s wealthiest divorce case. Confidentiality is the hot topic in the Hohn case. Mr Hohn, a hedge fund tycoon, has attempted to impose a blanket ban on the media reporting this case. His application was rejected by a High Court Judge. Until this case, the media has been allowed to sit in on private divorce cases but unable to report most of what they witness. If the Hohn judgement stands up to Mr Hohn’s inevitable appeal, all hearings will be reportable unless specifically restricted by a judge. The Open Justice principle impacts upon all cases no matter where they sit on the wealth scale.
Legal ramifications and precedents being set are one thing, but this sort of case will always hold a fascination for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. I can’t help but wonder whether for the Hohns and Hamms of this world, the expression ‘how the other half lives’ takes on a whole new meaning.