Sunday, February 17, 2008

Love Conquers All -- Even Divorce

As the McCartney/Mills divorce hearing drags into a second week, you can’t help but wish that the two of them would just step outside, grab a couple of green teas in Starbucks, and sort it out between them.

Of course that’s hardly likely. Once divorce reaches the courts, both partners are usually so blind to common sense that they stand and fight over the tiniest of details. I know, to my own shame and cost.

I used McCartney’s divorce firm, Payne Hicks Beach, in all three of my own settlements. They’re great solicitors (they represented Prince Charles), but boy do those bills hurt. Whoever said that in divorce no one wins but the lawyers certainly hit the nail on the proverbial head. Having accumulated a mountain of incendiary letters with claim and counter claim, my first wife and I one day woke up to the absurdity of decimating the family’s assets in this way. So we literally went for a coffee, found a sheet of paper, and agreed the whole thing in twenty minutes. As a result, she and I remain the best of friends and neither of us felt shortchanged.

By contrast my most recent experience involved four sets of lawyers in two continents and lasted two bitter years, twice the length of the marriage. Because I was living in California I fought for and won the right to have the hearing in Los Angeles, in the very same Superior Court where poor Britney Spears has been having her custody battles.

Unlike Britain, divorce in California isn’t about blame or apportionment; it’s based on the simple principle that marriage is an equal partnership. Everything earned by either party during the marriage is deemed “community property” and therefore jointly owned by both sides. On the other hand, any assets that predated the marriage are the property of the person who owned them before the knot was tied. This applies to everything from the CD collection to the toaster.

Now that’s clean, clear and very fair. It doesn’t matter that one party earns a million dollars a month and the other stays at home and buys shoes, the consequence of getting married is that what’s ours is ours and what was yours stays yours. This is based on quite an idealistic view of the institution of marriage. If two hearts become one, you can hardly complain if the proceeds of that relationship are split down the middle.

By contrast, our British system is antiquated, arbitrary and unfair, and has become a gold digger’s charter, creating a strong disincentive for a man with any saved cash or property to get married at all.

Even under the Californian system, the division of chattels was stressful. I had to go to court to win custody of my own dog. One national tabloid reported the story with the headline “Woof Justice For Tess”.

Tess was a delightful but not terribly bright cocker spaniel. In the heat of divorce she became a symbol of our utter irrationality. After months of haggling, my ex-wife and I were still about $100,000 apart. So, in order to get the matter settled and to avoid the astronomical costs of a court hearing, I offered her a choice: an extra $100,000 or the dog. It seemed to me a no-brainer, and I expected to walk away with the most expensive pooch in the world. Instead, the wife chose the dog, and I kept the hundred grand. Later I happily spent four hundred pounds of it on Truffle, another lovely spaniel who’s infinitely brighter and symbol of an altogether more successful relationship.

Indeed, walking with Joanna through Paris on our fourth Valentine’s Day, I now wonder what the fuss was all about. Love certainly conquers all, and I sincerely hope that by this time next year Paul and Heather will have found theirs and put memories of this degrading nightmare behind them.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

Do you still speak to ex-wife no. 2?
She and I worked together back in her BBC Radio days. I had a shufti at your dog postings. Cockers to English Shepherds - good move!