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This briefing paper deals with the law in England and Wales and relates to the division of a couple’s property and income when their marriage or civil partnership breaks down.

Division of assets on divorce or dissolution of civil partnership

A couple may agree between themselves how to divide their assets. Their agreement may be embodied in a consent order approved by the court which makes it legally binding and enforceable.

When agreement is not possible, the court may decide an application for financial provision. In deciding an application, the court is required by statute to have regard to “all the circumstances of the case, first consideration being given to the welfare while a minor of any child of the family who has not attained the age of eighteen”. Therefore, each case is dealt with on an individual basis according to its facts.

Case law

Case law has established that, in trying to achieve fairness in the division of property in any given case, the court should be guided by the principles of the needs of the parties; compensation; and equal sharing. The Law Commission has commented that the sharing principle is relevant only in a minority of cases because of the overriding problem of meeting needs.

Application to court

Couples must attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) before issuing an application to court for a financial remedy (with some exceptions).

A party to divorce proceedings, who remarries before they have made any application for a financial order, generally loses the ability to apply to the Court.

Financial Remedies Courts (FRCs) have been established as a subsidiary structure working within the Family Court. The principal aim and objective of the FRCs is to improve the delivery of financial remedies for families involved in court proceedings relating to issues arising from the dissolution of relationships


The Coalition Government asked the Family Justice Council to take forward a recommendation by the Law Commission for guidance to clarify the meaning of ‘financial needs’. In April 2016, the Family Justice Council published a guide, intended to help litigants in person, Sorting out Finances on Divorce. The guide sets out how the Family Court approaches financial needs on divorce. Separate guidance has been published for the judiciary.

Calls for reform

Private Members Bills have been introduced in a number of sessions with the intention of reforming the law relating to financial provision on divorce. To date, no Bill has completed its passage through Parliament. Resolution and the Times newspaper are among those who have also called for reform in this area.

Enforcement of Family Financial Orders

The Law Commission has made recommendations aimed at ensuring that payment is made once a court order is in place. The Government has agreed to take forward the recommendations which do not require primary legislation to put into effect but has not yet decided whether to implement the statutory reforms.

Pre-nuptial agreements

Some couples enter into a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement which sets out how they would wish their property and income to be divided in the event of divorce or dissolution. Although these agreements are not automatically enforceable, following a landmark ruling in the Supreme Court, some pre-nuptial agreements will now have effect in the absence of circumstances which would make this unfair.


Cohabiting couples do not have the same rights to financial provision on relationship breakdown as married couples or civil partners.

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