Marriage Plc: make sure you read the small print

Behind every corporate man is a corporate wife. And now she's getting angry. Hester Lacey on the divorce case that's dividing America
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Gary Wendt must be a worried man. Mr Wendt is an American multi- millionaire who has racked up $100m (pounds 66m) in the huge General Electric corporation, and for years (31 to be precise) has enjoyed the luxury of having a dutiful corporate wife: perfect hostess, wife and mother. But he is currently slugging out a divorce case. His soon-to-be-ex-wife Lorna has turned up her nose at the paltry $10m he has offered her and is taking him to court to demand half his fortune, arguing that her performance as a corporate wife has led directly to his personal success. In the process, she is putting the wind up any number of corporate fat-cats.

Wendt vs Wendt is seen as a test case because, in a number of states, while a half-and-half division is common practice for the "average" divorcing couple, estates over $10m are usually divided up with the bulk going to the male partner. The prospect of a 50-50 split becoming the normal method of divvying-up is un-nerving to husbands who have reason to fear being taken to the cleaners in the future.

"The case has sparked heated conversations at dinner parties, in bars, on commuter trains, and in corporate corridors all over the US," reports the New York Times. Opinion is deeply divided. Men (and quite a few women) defend Mr Wendt's right to keep his hand on his ha'penny, on the grounds that success is meetings and memos and being a financial genius - and that cooking a few dinners for colleagues, however delicious, is hardly in the same league. Women (and not very many men) weigh in for Mrs Wendt, pointing out that her entire life has been tossed into the corporate pot as a kind of human capital.

And the debate has moved further. "The important public policy issue here is, what is the nature of the marital partnership," Martha Fineman, a Columbia University law professor who testified for Mrs Wendt, told the New York Times. "Is it an equal partnership or is a housewife a junior partner?" Marriage Plc is on the line; if Mrs Wendt loses her case, it will be seen as a slap in the face for the cause of equality - particularly as American politicians, like British ones, pay unstinting lip-service to "family values".

Big business is not the only arena where wives are expected to put up and shut up. Vanessa Hannam, wife of Sir John Hannam, MP for Exeter, has written a book about the experience of being an MP's wife - Division Belle will be published by Headline in May. "Fourteen years as a parliamentary wife has given me a lot of time to think about the particular loneliness endured by the wives of high performance men," she says. "Of course everyone has the right to expect a supportive husband or wife, but if supporting the husband in his career is at the expense of a woman's potential, she has a right to be acknowledged. Wives enjoy no security of marital tenure. If high-performance man has a mid-life crisis and trades superwife for a newer model, and she still manages to raise a normal happy family, then her price is above rubies."

Being sacked is as devastating in Marriage Plc as in any other organisation. Emily, now 54, the same age as Lorna Wendt, relocated the family home (which included four children and, at different times, assorted dogs, cats and guinea-pigs) six times all over Britain during her quarter-century marriage. Two business dinner parties a week kept her in the kitchen; not to mention welcoming her husband's work colleagues to their country cottage. "We lived well, but it was hard work," she says. "My ex-husband simply could not have had the career he had without my help. At first we couldn't afford nannies, housekeepers, cleaners. The physical burdens eased when we made more money, but he still relied on my social support. A wife who is charming and socially able is a huge asset. When we divorced, I was not left short of cash. My bank balance is healthy and I'm well aware that many women would say I've got nothing to complain about. But I know he has 10 times what I do."

And there are other downsides to losing your job as a corporate wife. "You tend to live through your husband's career - you feel part of it. When that disappears you think 'Well,

what now?' You feel small, devastated." She wishes Lorna Wendt luck. "At least she is being taken seriously in court." As in all legal dealings, the ones guaranteed to walk away with cash are the lawyers. And, when a huge fortune hangs in the balance, the English lawyers may be quids in, as it could be cost-effective for a rich businessman to move here to fight a divorce . English divorces are settled case-by-case. Awards are based mainly on financial resources and needs. English courts are reluctant to make large awards to ex-wives. Some are already taking advantage. "There is no doubt that very wealthy men do consider all their options, and these include 'jurisdiction shopping'," explains divorce lawyer Margaret Bennett. "If they can arrange their affairs to move to a more favourab le jurisdiction they will. These people are so mobile internationally, they can make their divorce part of a business strategy. You can often get jurisdiction after a few months residence - in London it's 12." In the English courts and media there is a general feeling that a million or two should be jolly well enough for anyone. This makes any court fight more difficult. "There is a very patronising attitude to awards for women - a kind of 'What on earth could a woman do with more than pounds 1m?' feel," says Margaret Bennett. "It is seen as a sex war - a 'Why should she get his money?' situation. She is not seen as an equal partner, rather as someone who will spend her money on frippery and finery. The appro ach should be that this is an equal partnership - after a 30-year marriage, what has she had to sacrifice while he has built up his career?" Yes, but, surely a seven-figure-amount is actually a pretty reasonable sum to walk away with? Anyone imbued with a healthy disdain for the super-rich slugging it out over their millions, says Margaret Bennett, may like to consider that there is a more fu ndamental principle at stake: one law for the rich and another for the poor. "An average middle-class man can lose everything. A rich man can lose less than one per cent of his fortune. It is shockingly unfair that those with money should be able topick and choose in this way." American-born packaging multi-millionaire Robert Dart moved to London (taking out Irish and Belizian citizenship along the way). After the requisite period of residency, he served divorce papers on his surprised wife of 15 years, mother of their twochil dren. The divorce was granted in 1995, but subsequent hearings about who should get what dragged on for well over a year, to the glee of a jeering media circus. An aggrieved Mrs Dart commented at the time: "I was born in America, married in America,live in America and I am still an American citizen. I think it is so unfair he gets a divorce here." In the US, Mrs Dart could have expected around pounds 90m of Dart's pounds 900m fortune. She is still fighting in the American courts. If the Wendt case goes in Mrs Wendt's favour, well, half of pounds 900m is pounds 450m. The London court granted her less than pounds 9m - around one per cent of Dart's money.