Wife fights for share of husband's pension

A group of women is campaigning for pension rights after divorce. Mary Braid reports
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Margaret (not her real name), 48, talks of her past wistfully. There was the husband she loved, two healthy grown-up daughters, a £500,000 home and a holiday house overseas.

The "good life" ended a year ago when her 50-year-old husband, a senior airline captain, dropped "his bombshell"; ironically it came after the couple, married for 27 years, had been comforting a mutual friend who was going through a traumatic divorce.

"I remember saying wasn't he glad that we had each other and how sad it was when people hurt each other," she said. "That was when he told me he had fallen in love with a 25-year-old girl, and wanted a divorce so he could marry her immediately. I was completely devastated. I had no idea."

Margaret, like many middle-class women of her generation, thought her marriage was for life. She worked part-time and did not qualify for a company pension; her husband, who earned more than £100,000 a year, was building up a healthy pension.

Like tens of thousands of women facing divorce, Margaret has discovered she has no legal right to a share of her husband's pension which will yield £90,000 a year on his 55th birthday, or his Additional Voluntary Contributions policy which she believes is worth £80,000. When carving up a couple's assets, a husband's pension is often worth more than the matrimonial home. In Margaret's case, the point is accentuated because the pension is her husband's only major asset. Their home was sold a few years agoto cover debts when a business venture failed.

As the legal wrangle over finances continues, Margaret is utterly dismayed by her position. "Without a share of the pension I have no capital to put down on a small place of my own.

"It's not easy getting a mortgage at my age. I face a very poor retirement while my husband and his girlfriend enjoy the fruits of a pension built up over our 27 years of marriage. If he died the day after he married his girlfriend, the entire pension would go to her."

Despite advice from the Law Society, the Pensions' Management Institute and the Equal Opportunities' Commission, the Government has refused to include provisions to allow pensions to be split after divorce in its new pension Bill.

Through a group called Fairshares, women like Margaret are fighting back; Sallie Quin, a Fairshares' spokeswoman, said about half of the 1,000 women who have sought the group's help come from comfortable or affluent backgrounds. Divorce often means poverty in old age.

"Eighty per cent of men are better off after divorce, but the vast majority of women - partly because they live longer - die alone and in poverty," Ms Quin said.

"Most of the women we represent were married for a long time and their husbands left them, often for a younger woman. Most of their husbands want to keep the pension to themselves. Yet the pension belongs to both parties in the partnership. Even Beveridge pointed out in 1942, that men's productivity depended on the efforts of their wives.

"I feel the Government is betraying us. Other European countries have fairer laws, like the dividing of a man's pension between his wives depending on length of marriage."

Ms Quin said the Government was stalling on the issue because change would cost the Treasury money - extending tax relief to a large new group - and would run the risk of aggravating divorced men already alienated by the Government's attempts to make them pay for children from first marriages through the Child Support Agency.

Richard Malone, vice-president of the Pensions' Management Institute, said it was "aggrieved" that the Government had not acted on a report it produced two years ago, which called for pensions to be split on divorce. "This is a human and social issue which is getting worse and worse. The Government should not be putting its head in the sand," he said.