Week 60 – Memoirs of a family lawyer
As I become immersed in the world of probate law, my memories of working in family law begin to take on a rosy glow.
I forget the stress and emotion of divorcing clients, sometimes understandably passed on to the lawyer they are instructing to resolve the conflict, and the emergency applications to court. Even the sadness and frustration of parents fighting desperately to see more of their children is dimming a little in my memory.
One positive aspect of family law is the fascinating, ever-changing case law on what is a fair financial settlement on divorce.
One of my favourite family law concepts is that of the ‘trophy wife’. It has been held as a key principle of family law in recent years, that a wife who looks after the house and the children should not be discriminated against in determining the financial settlement on divorce. Her role as homemaker and child-carer, it is argued, is as important and valuable as that of the breadwinner.
But what of the ‘trophy wife’, who does not clean the house and cook for the children? Where there is wealth for employees to carry out these tasks, a husband may have had other priorities for the wife. She might have spent her time grooming and exercising, acting as hostess and attending social engagements, for example. In one memorable case report the judge referred to the husband wishing to ‘display’ such a wife as he might a valuable car or a luxury home.
The question is whether this contribution to the marriage is to be valued equally to that of a hard-working bread-winner. Must such a wife be objectively considered a ‘trophy’, or need she only be so in the eyes of her husband? And in times of equality, what of the trophy husband?
Most divorce cases are, of course, a world away from this, and the concerns centre around how the finances which may have struggled to support one home, can possibly be stretched to cover the costs of two. Whilst in probate a beneficiary’s windfall may on occasion be unexpected, on divorce it is inevitably the case that everyone’s standard of living must fall.
A family lawyer’s responsibility is heavy, since their approach to the conflict can significantly affect the parties’ future relationship, which, if there are children of the family, can be of immense significance for their future.
How important a probate lawyer may be to those they act for, is an issue I am beginning to grasp. Clearly, kindness and sensitivity, communication and availability, and acting efficiently and cost-effectively, are qualities to be sought in an advisor in both legal fields.