Focus: To love, honour, and to <i>pay?</i>

Should a wife be entitled to half her husband's future earnings when they get divorced? Lawyers say so in a landmark case that could change the way couples embark on marriage. Or it might just put them off the idea all together. Sonia Purnell reports

When Ray and Karen Parlour divorced in 2002 he offered to pay her £120,000 a year in maintenance. It would be a large sum to most people, but he was a football star for Arsenal and England, earning a fortune. So a judge branded his offer "thoroughly mean and unfair" and awarded Karen Parlour £1m in cash and property, an income of £250,000 a year for herself and thousands more in maintenance for their three children.

But Mrs Parlour was sick as a parrot about the deal, and last week her lawyers told the Court of Appeal why. Ray owed his glittering career to his wife, they argued. The couple had met when he was only a 17-year-old apprentice and she was an optician's assistant. Once married, she rescued him from the brink of self-destructive alcoholism that would have put him out of the game - and she also cared for his kids. Then Mr Parlour admitted adultery and they divorced. That was why Karen Parlour wanted full financial recognition of her contribution in the form of half his earnings - not just during his lucrative playing career, but for life.

Mr Parlour's lawyers, said no; it was he who had to "submit to the regime" of training at Arsenal, and who laboured on the pitch. Without him, Karen Parlour would have achieved nothing. Now three appeal judges are considering whether a wife can be entitled to half her ex-husband's earnings for ever - a judgment that could change divorce in this country completely.

Sandra Davis, the country's top divorce lawyer, believes it may even threaten the institution of marriage itself. Ms Davis is the feisty solicitor credited as the real architect of the late Diana, Princess of Wales's groundbreaking £17m divorce settlement from the Prince of Wales. The 47-year-old is head of divorce at law firm Mishcon de Reya, and widely hailed for her skills in extracting multi-million pound deals for such clients as Jerry Hall in her split from Sir Mick Jagger, and the former wives of Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas and Steven Spielberg.

"If the wife has this ongoing hold over the future earnings of the husband, it is difficult to envisage how couples will ever disengage from a failed marriage," says Ms Davis, who is married with two sons. "The point of divorce law in this country was always to encourage a clean break between the parties, to let people move on, have new families. But if women think their ex-husbands may earn more in future than they do at the time of the divorce - and that they will be entitled to a big share of it - why would they go for a cut-off settlement?"

Men might shy away from marriage if even a short partnership was likely to result in half of all future earnings going to the wife, she says. "You could have a big swing against marriage if the husband thinks he'll end up as a wage slave."

Ms Davis is one of a small coterie of divorce lawyers known as "the magic circle" who charge up to £400 an hour. But her views are shared by counsellors at Relate, the relationship guidance service that deals with couples from all backgrounds at a cost of up to £50 an hour.

"If Mrs Parlour wins, it will have a major effect on couples' ability to commit to each other," says Paula Hall, an experienced Relate counsellor. "I can't think of a situation I have come across where it would have been fair to split a couple's income 50-50 on their divorce. People will simply refuse to involve their spouses in their career decision-making, for instance, for fear that even asking for advice will mean they are taken to the cleaners if they split up."

She can envisage some husbands insisting on paying for childcare, even if the wife is staying at home, just so that there will be less of a financial claim against them in the event of a divorce. "People are getting rather paranoid and this case will just make that worse."

It takes a male divorce lawyer - Raymond Tooth of Sears Tooth, who is reportedly advising Sadie Frost on her split from Jude Law - to defend Mrs Parlour's position. "If a wife is making an equal contribution as a home-maker and raiser of children, why shouldn't she enjoy half the income? I had a rich City client who resented paying his wife so much just for looking after the two kids, who were just two and four years old. I suggested he have them by himself one Sunday to show how easy her job was and by Monday morning he was saying, 'Pay her anything she wants.' Men don't realise the contribution their wives make."

Sandra Davis believes a victory for Mrs Parlour will prompt a stampede into pre-nuptial agreements, which have traditionally been disdained as an American vulgarity in this country. "I suspect for the sake of a few thousand pounds, people would rather clarify at the outset what their expectations are," she argues. Pre-nups are still not legally binding here and are disliked by Relate counsellors as "destroying trust and creating distance between couples". Over the past year, however, courts have begun to take them into account in divorce settlements, as long as there was no coercion, and both parties received legal advice.

"People wouldn't enter any commercial dealing without a contract," argues Ms Davis. "Marriage is a commercial dealing but skewed by emotion. So better to decide these things when you feel positive than when things go wrong, and you can attempt to provide for eventualities such as the length of marriage, birth of children and the wife giving up work."

So far, British agreements have not included behavioural clauses such as the penalty provisions invoked if Michael Douglas has affairs within a certain number of years of his marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones, for example. "But we could have something like Harrison Ford's agreement with his ex-wife that she could have an ongoing share in royalties from films he made while with her, although not those he made after they had parted."

The judges in the Parlour case are deciding on the principle of whether a wife should be entitled to half her ex-husband's earnings, although Mrs Parlour is now prepared to take a settlement of a tax-free £440,000 a year - "just over a third" - because of the shortness of the marriage.

This is the first time the 50 per cent principle has been tested on future earnings - previously judges have taken account only of the wife's "reasonable needs" (rather than husband's wealth) when assessing how much income she is entitled to from the family pot. "Reasonable" is an elastic term and can include, if deemed appropriate, allowances for laser hair removal and collagen treatments.

"'Reasonable needs' was all about a lifestyle to which the wife has become accustomed during her married life. It is a reality check, definitely not a wish list," explains Ms Davis.

Divorce settlements in Britain have been low by international standards. Wives have frequently ended up with as little as 10 or 20 per cent of the assets or income. The Parlour case is seen as a natural progression within a sea-change in legal thinking on divorce since the White vs White case in 2000. This established that in the case of marriages of "over 20 years" the presumption should be that assets, rather than future income, should be divided more or less equally. Pamela White argued all the way to the House of Lords that after 33 years of marriage she was a partner in her husband's farming business, and was granted 40 per cent of the firm as a clean-break deal.

Her determination has seen a number of similar cases adopt the 50-50 principle on assets acquired during long marriages - with the exception of any inherited wealth which is always excluded from the equation. But it was the lawyers who fared best. The alleged £2m cost of the case, meant that the business had to be sold off anyway - to pay legal bills.

I wanted to get out in the quickest and cheapest way

Ebru Rackstraw, 28, Ealing, west London

"I was married at 18 and separated at 22. At first my husband didn't want a divorce: he was worried I was going to ask for half the house, or something. What he didn't understand was that I wanted a quick divorce in return for nothing - however, when the judge saw that I was asking for nothing and that I didn't even have a solicitor he stopped the proceedings and advised me to get one. I just wanted to get out of the marriage in the quickest and cheapest way so I thought I could omit the solicitor. We did use mediation, even though we couldn't bear to be in the same room, and we did come to an agreement.

"I was told to ask for the repayment of a large student loan, but I didn't want that. I wanted to close the chapter firmly and quickly and get on with my life. I am a graphic designer. Divorce hasn't put me off marriage - I got married again last year and my husband would never have asked me for a pre-nuptial agreement, it just wasn't an issue. My husband has put me on the deeds of the house, which was so surprising after the behaviour of my ex."

I feel done, I had no time to prepare

Julie Sanders, 49, Coventry

"I am a lot more aware of the consequences of marriage now: it isn't just romantic, it is a business partnership and I have been bitten. After 15 years my husband wanted to rush the divorce through very quickly and I feel I got done, really - he was the person that left so he had the time to prepare everything and I didn't.

"I had saved and saved (and he would never save) so that even though I kept the house I had to give a lump sum to my husband. Now the house is remortgaged, which is a huge weight to bear. Finances are complicated after a divorce. The odd thing is he was a nice guy, I would never have thought this of him - but people change, and that is what pre-nuptial agreements don't take into account: pre-nups don't change with the relationship, so who do they benefit really?

"The turning point for me was when he was preparing to leave and I thought, 'I have to get through this.' I did. I may have debt, but I also have a new career as a life coach, which is what this is all about: a fresh start. The thing that astounds me is the ease with which people remarry. How can they afford it?"

Don't these women have any pride?

Sarah Wheeler, 40, Oxford

"As the new partner of a divorcee dad who is going to court again over the issue of contact I would like to say that divorce-land is a woman's world. Women wanted equality and equal parenting. They want dads to feed babies and change nappies - until divorce. Then the recollection of having dad even at the conception becomes misty and he loses all rights. The children become the possession of the mother, to use to get whatever she wants from the father and to punish him for the failed marriage. He does the decent thing and moves out ... she gets the house, the kids, and maintenance. He gets a bed at his brother's house, debts and a part-time (if he is lucky) relationship with his kids. It is sex discrimination.

"I am an ex wife as well ... but my ex got 50 per cent of the house, has unlimited access to the kids and pays no maintenance. I have a full-time job as a senior nurse and I neither want nor need maintenance.

"That is how it should be - I don't want to be supported by my ex.

"Don't these women have any pride? Why don't they get out there and earn? I am marrying again in four weeks' time and we have talked about this. If it happens again we will do the same - 50-50. No problem."

I worked hard to get on - he was never promoted

Sylvia Sheppard, 46, Keighley, Yorkshire

"I have learnt a lot from my divorce and I won't make the same mistakes again. If my boyfriend and I ever get married we will sign a pre-nuptial agreement. It was his suggestion - he didn't want anyone to think he was after me for my money. It was quite sweet really, but also very sensible as I now own my own business as well as the house.

"My marriage lasted 15 years. It was the total opposite of most, as I, rather than my husband, was the main breadwinner. I had been promoted up to area manager of Barclays bank, while he was doing the same job as when he left school - a supervisor in our local textiles factory.

"We made our financial settlement two years before we actually got divorced and it did get very nasty. My ex-husband tried to get everything out of me, and my lawyers were advising me to get really nasty back. But in the end, for the sake of our son who was getting very disturbed and upset by all the nastiness, I compromised. I gave my ex-husband 50 per cent of the equity in the house although I refused to give him any rights over my pension - and agreed not to touch his.

"Obviously, my pension from a bank was quite substantial so there was no way I was going to give that up. The bank had created that pension for me, not him.

"I had worked very hard to get where I had, whereas he had never been promoted. It wasn't as if he had done any more housework or childcare than me, even though he had an easier job. We shared that 50-50.

"I do not agree that couples should split their assets equally when they divorce. Where the wife doesn't work, and the husband has made millions, what has she done to deserve half of that money?"

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