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

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.

Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
News
i100
Travel
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015