LA-style ruling shatters illusions

WHEN the 1995 referendum lifted the ban on D.I.V.O.R.C.E. (as Tammy Wynette sung it so as not to upset little J.O.E.), the letters were supposed to spell freedom.

But just as the act of ending a marriage could cut an unhappy spouse loose from the kind of misery you'd need a heavy goods licence to carry around, it could also liberate him or her from their assets.

And now we're finding out just how much that kind of liberty can cost.

This week's Supreme Court ruling on the divorce of a well-to-do professional couple offers points to ponder for anyone weighing their affection for their spouse against their attachment to the contents of their safety deposit box.

Firstly, it dispels the idea that Irish couples can't have big-bucks, Hollywood-style divorces where, as Ivana Trump put it, the strategy should be: don't get mad, get everything.

It was thought all the higher-earning spouse had to do was make "proper provision" for the lower-earning or dependent spouse and anything beyond that was a bonus to show no hard feelings or to discourage a disgruntled spouse from adopting a semi-retired rottweiler to warm the welcome mat during access visits.

Not so, said the Supreme Court, approving a €6.25 million pay-out to the wife in question (one third of the husband's total wealth) on top of the family home, assorted valuable antiques and paintings, a second house and half his pension.

They didn't put it in so many words, but clearly the court was saying: "We know she and the kids could in theory live on €161.38 per week (the social welfare payment to a one-parent family with three children) but if they've been used to Brown Thomas wardrobes, why should they have to switch to Fred's Fashions?"

Secondly, they placed value on the wife's emotional investment. She sacrificed her career to care for the family, thus incurring the cost of potential earnings lost, but she also created the loving, supportive environment in which her husband's career flourished.

It was a key insight into the Supreme Court's thinking on such matters namely that you can't measure the value of the home-maker only in terms of the number of cleaning staff, childminders and household appliances you'd need to have to replace them.

Many who voted no in 1995 feared divorce would allow folk take marriage lightly, knowing there was always an escape route.

They needn't have worried. If the Supreme Court ruling does anything, it portrays the escape route as a sewer tunnel inhabited by trolls and the occasional agitated alligator. Still want to go there?

Of course, if it all works out, the smell of sweet, fresh air on the other side can be worth it.

Clearly the Supreme Court husband thinks so. He wants to get married again. At least he did. He may be oiling his weighing scales yet.

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