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Pioneering research reveals stark reality of divorcing couples’ finances

Press release issued: 1 November 2023

High-profile acrimonious divorce cases making news headlines have created the false impression court room showdowns and large financial settlements are commonplace.

But a new report, led by the University of Bristol and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, exposes for the first time how most divorcees in England and Wales have surprisingly little to share. Many are also figuring out money matters between themselves, hampered by a lack of financial and legal knowledge, bypassing the legal system designed to achieve fairness, and leaving women worse off.

The research shows the median total assets divorcing couples own, including home, pensions, and taking into account any debts, was just £135,000 and equal division of this joint pot was not the norm.

Lead author Emma Hitchings, Professor of Family Law at the University of Bristol, said: “The research highlights that the total value of assets most couples have is modest. This presents a totally different picture to the media portrayal of substantial divorce settlements of the very wealthy and gives an important reality check on what ‘everyday’ couples are experiencing on divorce.”

“Overall, the report exposes the considerable financial vulnerability of women post-divorce. Although legal processes are largely fair, these are not being used, especially by those with least means but most need.”

Only about a third of divorcing couples formally finalise their finances through the legal system with a court order – and a much smaller fraction of couples (one in 10) actually go to court. The vast majority of divorcees sort out key arrangements, including housing, pensions and ongoing maintenance outside legal processes.

The Fair Shares research surveyed over 2,400 divorcees and sheds unprecedented detailed light on such arrangements. It revealed almost a fifth of couples had no assets to divide and of those who did, only three in ten reported receiving around half of the net asset pool. Given the relatively modest average asset pool, a quarter of divorcees ended up with nothing or just debts.

Most couples favoured a clean financial break and less than a quarter (22%) had a spousal maintenance arrangement, which stipulates ongoing support, usually in favour of the ex-wife but nearly always for a fixed period. The findings showed just two in five divorcees made use of lawyers as a source of information, advice or support during the divorce process, with many citing fear of cost as a deterrent and relying on other sources like Government websites. More than one in 10 sought no advice or information to help them with their divorce.

“Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing within our findings to suggest spousal maintenance is being used as a ‘meal ticket’ for life or that legal costs are astronomical across the board. In fact, legal costs can be relatively modest,” Professor Hitchings said.

“Where legal advice was used, we found nearly a quarter of divorcees had to find less than £1,000, with higher costs associated with greater wealth. Many divorcees showed a considerable lack of financial and legal knowledge, potentially resulting in women losing out on a fairer settlement.”

Pensions were found to be an especially poorly understood and underutilised asset. Only one in 10 divorcees with a pension yet to be drawn had made an agreement for pension sharing.

Professor Hitchings said: “As our data evidences, more than a third of divorcees did not know the value of their own pension pot, let alone their spouse’s. Without all assets, particularly pensions, being considered on divorce, the future financial security of many women, who generally have smaller pension pots than men, is being put at risk.”

Around 100,000 couples get divorced annually in England and Wales. The research highlights how work needs to be done to improve people’s awareness and understanding of the legal process and their respective rights, including what they’re entitled to, as well as overcoming misconceptions about cost.

Professor Hitchings said: “More focus should be directed to divorcees with precarious finances, rather than very wealthy clients whose stories dominate media attention. The current discretionary law takes into account the wide range of individual circumstances and needs of divorcing couples.”

The report comes as proposals for reform are being considered by the Law Commission and the controversial Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill in the House of Lords has been presented to Parliament, which would make equal sharing of assets the default.

“Although such a proposal might appear simple to introduce, equal sharing would not deliver a fair outcome for many couples with not much to share and very different priorities to those of very wealthy divorcees, such as providing a home for children from the relationship,” said Professor Hitchings.

“Maintaining a discretionary approach and introducing a way of factoring in pensions are therefore key considerations for future reform.”  

Ash Patel, Programme Head for Justice at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “This research lands at a critical moment, when the laws implemented half a century ago around divorce finances are under review.

“It highlights the persistence and prevalence of myths around divorce, and clearly demonstrates the often unequal financial footing of parties going into, and coming out of a divorce. Here, women appear more financially vulnerable, tending to be financially worse off than men in the years after the divorce.”

Further information

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

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