The Devaluing of London's Marital Bond Market

While other overclass miscalculations spark bailout after bailout, dissolving alpha-grade marital bonds is a far trickier business. There is, for instance, the matter of shielding your liquid assets from a grasping ex, to say nothing of the messy personal details that tend to come out in bitterly contested divorce proceedings.

Most of all, though, there’s the great preoccupation of the wealthy in every unpleasant public scrape: the question of one’s legacy. That’s the gist of an epic dispatch from the Financial Times’ Jane Croft and Michael Peel, explaining how the once-swinging precincts of elite London have found themselves in a sort of legal limbo, so far as divorce goes.

The present unsettled state of British divorce law, they write, “makes good copy for journalists but means stress and doubt for some very high-profile individuals — as well as putting a strain on the court system for which everyone pays.”

For starters, there’s the precedent set by a 2000 House of Lords decision, holding that couples should seek to split assets on an equal basis in divorce proceedings. That’s been a boon for “the economically weaker partner — usually the wife,” Croft and Peel observe. Hence the tidy £24 million settlement that Heather Mills, the former life partner of Sir Paul McCartney, obtained after a scant four years of marriage in the couple’s 2008 divorce — and the £48 million that Beverly Charman, former wife of insurance titan John Charman, commanded in Britain’s largest-ever divorce settlement.

What’s more, British courts have, until very recently, granted no quarter to the wealthy scion’s greatest protection from an avaricious estranged spouse: the pre-nuptial agreement. The pronounced tilt of the British courts toward the interests of the less flush partner has produced a sort of land rush in upscale monogamy-smashing. Since London is already one of the prized haunts of “a super-elite often working in international finance,” Croft and Peel note, the final stages of marital dissolution has created their own affective race to the bottom: There are accounts, they sigh, of “some unseemly races between divorce lawyers to complete paperwork, with husbands trying to file in other countries before their wives can launch cases in England.”

The only trouble is that the wife-favoring British system may soon be a receding mirage, thanks to a surpassingly odd recent case in which the English high court upheld a prenup drawn up by a German chemical heiress named Katrin Radmacher prior to marrying a French investment banker named Nicolas Granatino. In the buck-passing tradition of French investment bankers everywhere, Granatino claimed that Radmacher concealed the true scale of her family’s £106 million family fortune, and had exploited his “besotted” romantic state (in the classy locution of his attorney) to rush him into a pre-nup that shorted him out of his true stake in their now-sundered union. Radmacher’s legal team countered that it was something shy of a romantic you-and-me-against-the-world gesture for Granatino to promptly quit his day job after his marriage to work as science researcher at Oxford University and loll around his wife’s £2.5 million estate. He clearly had a pretty good idea that he was in the hands of a flush provider — and what’s more, the Radmacher attorneys noted, he was in line for a £30 million inheritance himself once his own parents, a proud pair of French tax exiles, were dispatched to their own earthly reward.

All in all, one can quickly size up the Radmacher case as a piece without heroes. But when the British Supreme Court upheld the pre-nup in an 8–1 ruling, family law specialists began to worry that ushering Mayfair’s financial moguls into the pre-nup age could mark a distinct step backwards in the cause of gender equality. The court’s sole dissenting vote came from its only female member, a family law specialist who is also — of course — a baroness, named Lady Hale. If the Radmacher precedent stands (which, by the way, the change-averse panel tried to guard against by characterizing the ruling as a one-off), it could open up “some profound questions about the nature of marriage in modern law and the role of courts in determining it.” Some far-seeing opulent lovebirds might well elect “to contract out of the guiding principles of equality and non-discrimination within marriage; others may think this a retrograde step likely only to benefit the strong at the expense of the weak.”

Of course, one can make the case that all marriage, especially at the level of the upper-caste empyrean, tends overwhelmingly to benefit the strong at the expense of the weak; why should divorce be any different? The simple status of the alleged wronged party in the Radmacher affair as a multimillion-pound scion-waiting-to-happen points up the broader invidious social uses to which the institution famously allied with the formation of private property is routinely turned. (For a brisker stateside demonstration of the same principle, we recommend close study of the New York TimesSunday Vows section.) From this vantage, the dawning age of the Albion pre-nup is probably a welcome development: It will bring the contradictions in the existing order of things up to an intolerable pitch — and at that point, the foundations of the big baby lottery will finally be in place.

Chris Lehmann is a secret optimist.