Divorce applications reached their highest levels in a decade in 2022, with a number of high-profile HNW cases making headlines
A jurisdiction saga, a significant ruling on the status of a decree nisi and an ultra-rich couple’s pre-nup feature among some of the most interesting divorce cases of the year.
Leading UK family lawyers tell Spear’s what these cases could mean for HNW couples in future.
Alvina Collardeau-Fuchs & Michael Fuchs
Back in February, a High Court ruling saw property developer Michael Fuchs – the co-owner of the Chrysler building in New York – ordered to pay his estranged wife an annual allowance of £3.64 million while the former couple thrash out a contentious divorce.
The court heard details of the UHNW couple’s ‘extremely high standard of living’ between their homes in London, Miami and the French Riviera, until their separation in 2019. At that point, Ms Collardeau-Fuchs argued that she had been cut off from her husband’s support – contrary to the terms of a prenuptial agreement.
Ms Collardeau-Fuchs’ arguments won favour with the court, with Mr Justice Mostyn making it clear that Mr Fuchs would be expected to maintain the financial support until the conclusion of the divorce.
‘The central issue in the Fuchs case was the status of a prenuptial agreement made under New York law,’ says Nicholas Bennett, a barrister specialising in drafting and litigating prenuptial agreements.
‘The case illustrates the importance for any internationally mobile couple of ensuring that their pre-nup is valid in each country where they have a home, and therefore each country where a divorce might happen,’ he tells Spear’s. ‘Modern pre-nups have to cross borders.’
For divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag – who won the Supreme Court case of Radmacher that made pre-nups work in England – the ruling has particular significance for HNWs relocating to the UK.
‘If HNWs end up in an English divorce court without a watertight pre-nup (or post-nup) in place, they can face the equivalent of a 50 per cent tax on their entire net worth,’ she tells Spear’s.
Angela Jilina & Walid Abu-Zalaf
Does a decree nisi alone mean the end of a marriage – even if it hasn’t been made absolute? That was the question before the court in the case of Angela Jilina and Walid Abu-Zalaf, with the plaintiff arguing that – despite the granting of such an order in 2013 – she and her former husband had remained married for another seven years.
In a written ruling, Mr Justice Mostyn was candid in his assessment of Ms Jilina’s motivations – ‘it is about money, and only about money,’ he surmised, pointing to the terms of a prenuptial agreement which provided a greater degree of protection for the plaintiff if her argument was accepted.
Indeed, by the court’s calculations, Ms Jilina stood to gain an extra £1.7 million in housing capital, a lump sum of £250,000, and additional spousal maintenance of around £13,500 per annum.
Instead Mr Justice Mostyn was dismissive of the notion that the couple had reconciled in 2014, as Ms Jilina’s lawyers had argued. While the court accepted that the couple had attended some social arrangements together – including the wedding of Tony Blair’s daughter – it held that these interactions had ‘none of the qualities of marriage’.
‘The ruling was unique as there are not many cases relating to the decree nisi,’ says Neil Russell, head of family for Seddons. ‘It shows that one party’s belief may not be sufficient to satisfy a court that it’s enough to extend the length of our marriage.’
Svetlana Nicolaisen & Bjorn Nicolaisen
While European divorce law sets out clear rules for determining jurisdiction, the international nature of most HNW families can make the matter less clean cut in practice – as was the case in Nicolaisen v. Nicolaisen.
In filing for divorce against her husband, the founder of a large Norwegian cleaning produce company, Svetlana Nicolaisen claimed she had been ‘habitually resident’ in London for 12 months prior to her claim – thus making her eligible to pursue the divorce in England.
On this occasion, the court was not convinced.
‘Residence has to be something more than just a place where you or your spouse own a property,’ said Mr Justice Moor.
The question, he said, was whether the petitioner could be said to have meaningfully relocated to London from Vienna – a matter on which the court was not convinced.
Decisive factors included the fact that Ms Nicolaisen remained primary carer to the couple’s son, who remained in Vienna; that Ms Nicolaisen had not told anyone that she had moved to London; and that the couple’s ‘precious cats’ – of which the petitioner was known to be particularly fond – remained at the former family home in Austria.
‘The question of which jurisdiction a divorce takes place is pivotal in HNW cases – it’s often pretty much winner takes it all,’ says Ayesha Vardag, who has advised HNW clients looking to establish their residence in Britain.
‘We got our client (Pauline Chai) a £64m divorce award by proving she had habitual residence in England – partly based on where she kept the most shoes. The client’s husband had been pushing for a divorce in Malaysia where she would have got virtually nothing.’
Sissi Tuchel & Thomas Tuchel
‘They have tried to avoid splitting but in the end there was no other way,’ a family friend of the Tuchels told the Mail on Sunday in April. The quote appeared in newspaper articles reporting that Sissi Tuchel had filed for divorce from her husband – the former manager of Chelsea football club.
Having led the West London side to Champions League glory in his first season, Tuchel remains one of the continent’s most respected managers – with the 49-year-old German even tipped as a future England manager. The couple married in 2009 and have two daughters together.
The divorce was officially granted by the High Court in July, with Mr Justice Mostyn affirming Mrs Tuchel’s argument that her husband had behaved unreasonably. The settlement is expected to follow in 2023.
Julia Goddard-Watts & James Goddard-Watts
A long-running HNW divorce dispute has returned to court once more, as Julia Goddard-Watts, the former wife of Screwfix founder James Goddard-Watts, seeks to overturn a settlement that she says has left her former husband with 90 per cent of the couple’s wealth.
The couple originally split in 2009, but the settlement was quickly challenged by Ms Goddard-Watts who successfully persuaded the court that her husband had hidden the full extent of his wealth in order to place her at a disadvantage.
The Court of Appeal will now reassess the case after the High Court ruled, in January this year, that Ms Goddard-Watts should receive another £1.1 million, taking her total share to £7.4 million. Her lawyers argued that the settlement still remains unfair – as it would see Mr Goddard-Watts exit with £75 million.