McCartneys blame media as they go separate ways

Sir Paul McCartney is facing one of the biggest divorce settlements in history after he and his wife of four years announced that they were to separate.

The former Beatle condemnedcritics who suggested that Heather Mills McCartney had married him for his money as legal experts predicted the former model turned charity campaigner could expect a £200m payout - nearly a quarter of her husband's fortune.

The couple declined to sign a pre-nuptial agreement, which could have limited any divorce settlement, claiming they were "too much in love". They issued a joint statement expressing their "sadness" at the split yesterday but blamed the media after weeks of newspaper stories suggesting their marriage was over and that the couple had gone their separate ways - claims over which Lady McCartney threatened to sue.

"Having tried exceptionally hard to make our relationship work given the daily pressures surrounding us, it is with sadness that we have decided to go our separate ways," the statement said. The couple, who have a two-year-old daughter Beatrice Milly, said the split would prove "immensely stressful".

The couple added: "Our parting is amicable and both of us still care about each other very much but have found it increasingly difficult to maintain a normal relationship with constant intrusion into our private lives, and we have actively tried to protect the privacy of our child."

In a separate personal message issued on Sir Paul's website, the musician paid tribute to his wife, praising her generous charity work and attacking the "vicious rumours" which had dogged their marriage.

"It's been suggested that she married me for the money and there is not an ounce of truth in this. She is a very generous person who spends most of her time trying to help others in greater need than herself. All the work she does is unpaid so these stories are ridiculous and completely unfounded."

The relationship raised eyebrows from the start. Lady McCartney is 26 years younger than Sir Paul, who will be 64 next month. They met a year after the death of his first wife Linda from breast cancer. Their marriage, which produced three children, was hailed as one of the happiest in the troubled world of pop star nuptials. It was said Paul and Linda spent less than a week apart in 29 years together.

Sir Paul met his second wife at a charity event organised by the Daily Mirror. Ms Mills had become a public figure after a series of newspaper articles highlighting how she overcame her injuries, resulting in an amputated leg, when she was knocked over by a police motorcyclist. She campaigned against landmines and for prosthetic limbs for those injured by them.

Alan Kaufman, a leading divorce lawyer, said wives of top earners were seeing increasingly generous payments in the divorce courts. "This will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, divorce cases to hit the English courts, if it gets that far," he said.