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December 3, 2014updated 01 Feb 2016 10:38am

The Cooper-Hohn ’337 million divorce settlement breaks new ground

By Spear's

The biggest divorce case in years has reached a multi-million-pound settlement – for now. Deborah Jeff investigates the implications

The expression ‘as rich as Croesus’ comes from the legendary wealth of the king who reigned from 560 to 546BC over Lydia in western Asia Minor. Gold from the mines and from the sands of the River Pactolus filled his coffers to overflowing, but after last week’s precedent-setting divorce case I would not be surprised if the saying were to be changed to as ‘rich as Hohn’.

Indeed, following her being granted ’337 million the saying could be amended to ‘as rich as Jamie Cooper-Hohn’. While the newspapers have largely focused on Jamie Cooper-Hohn now being richer than our Queen who, at 285 in the Sunday Times Rich List, has a personal fortune that is valued at a much smaller ’330 million, the focus for many high net worth individuals will be not on the wealth of the individuals involved but on the implications of this case.

This highest-profile and longest-running divorce case of recent years has several important repercussions for the future of family law. It is interesting that Mrs Justice Roberts rebuffed Jamie Cooper-Hohn’s husband’s plea for exceptional circumstances when making her judgment. There have only been a handful of cases since 2000 where the main breadwinner has pleaded ‘special contribution’ and won. The fact that a majority of pleas are not successful demonstrates that the contribution in question has to be truly unique.

Judges are reluctant to grant special contribution in divorce proceedings, as such a decision could be seen as undermining the supporting partner’s role as homekeeper and parent. This might explain why the court would not uphold Chris Hohn’s plea as, despite being significant, his professional and financial contribution to the marriage did not outweigh Jamie Cooper-Hohn’s contribution as wife and mother. Furthermore, it is unlikely he found favour with the judge when he proposed the remarkably low settlement figure of 25 per cent, as most would find this figure inappropriate.

Where the outcome of the case is perhaps surprising is when considering Chris Hohn’s vast impact on the investment industry and his considerable market success, one wonders what will qualify as special contribution in the future. This may make many of those who are seeking a divorce consider whether it is wise to use this plea, as Chris Hohn’s financial contribution to the marriage was undoubtedly exceptional.

There are very few individuals who could claim to have brought so much wealth to a marriage and whose fortune puts even our Monarch to shame. Recent case law on the issue has set a very high benchmark and it will be interesting to see now who or what will reach it, if indeed anyone will.

Although the case reinforces the norm entrenched in recent divorce case law – that a supporting partner’s contribution as parent and homekeeper is equal to the breadwinner’s – the high-profile nature of this case means that we may still see more wealthy individuals using special contribution as an argument in divorce proceedings in the future to achieve more than 50 per cent of the capital.

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It will also be interesting to see whether there is an upsurge in the number of divorces taking place in London; as an American wife has been granted such a large fortune here it may be that this case truly rubberstamps London as the ‘divorce capital of the world’.

This judgment may also not be the end of this story. Many of the news reports have been stating that Jamie Cooper-Hohn is not happy with the settlement and might appeal – so it looks set to run on. Some onlookers will be fascinated when the exact value of the couple’s fortune is revealed later this month as the amount of the assets has still not been made public and we do not know the percentage of their wealth that Jamie Cooper-Hohn has been awarded.

No matter how much the assets are worth, however, the result does make one wonder whether Croesus himself could have justified using the special contribution argument in a divorce case.

Deborah Jeff is family law specialist and partner at law firm Seddons

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