The potential pitfalls for wives on divorce – reflections on International Women’s Day

As a family lawyer, two issues have struck a chord with me in recent years in relation to the challenges faced by some women on the family law journey. The first is pension inequality and secondly (and often connected) is how  menopause is insufficiently considered by lawyers, courts and more generally.

Some time ago, I listened to Professor Debora Price of Manchester University talk eloquently about how complex and highly gendered the pension system is in the UK; possibly one of the worst pension systems in the world. A striking feature of her presentation at the time was the stark pension gap between men and women  which means many women are thrown into poverty on retirement, especially if divorced. This no doubt helps to explain why significant numbers of divorced women are reliant on state benefits in retirement and the situation is made worse by the fact the number of divorcees entering into retirement is growing. As a family lawyer this poses an important challenge, namely how can we address some of these inequalities. Research by Price and her team highlighted that pension inequality is rife both in general terms and subsequent to divorce. She found that married men have the most pension, with those aged 45-54 having median pension wealth of circa £86,000 compared to £40,000 for women. The chasm grew by age 65-69 where median wealth for married men was £212,000 compared to just £35,000 for married women.  This meant that the average married woman was retiring with just over 16% of the pension wealth that the average man did. The situation for divorced, non-cohabiting  women was even worse with a pension pot of £19,000 in the 55-64 age group compared to a pension pot of  £100,000 for men in an equivalent position. This is clearly dire and these women had lost the safety net of a spouse to financially assist in retirement and also found meeting a new partner harder. They were financially very exposed.

The impact on women is hard to ignore and whilst The Pension Advisory Group has sought a consistent and better informed approach to the treatment of pensions on divorce, the situation remains worrying and there is growing concern that the still new no-fault divorce process could lead to even more women taking no legal advice whatsoever in terms of their pension rights and other financial entitlements.

Also concerning, and related, is that too many women on divorce do not achieve full financial independence because many are held back by menopause symptoms and cannot always work or achieve self-sufficiency in the way that the family courts expects. The headline of recent years that 1 million women (or 1 in 10) leave their employment due to lack of menopause support is sobering. How are these women financially surviving if they are losing their jobs or going part-time at a time when the family court has largely or completely cut them adrift from spousal maintenance? Peri/menopause can last for years often starting in the 40’s for many women. Divorce also peaks for the over 40’s  and therein lies the problem. Women may well be divorcing at a time when peri-menopause has a stranglehold. The expectation of the family court currently is for women to achieve financial independence even if they have not been in the workplace for many years due to family and children commitments. Menopause or biology does not appear as a factor to be considered by the court although the court can take into account age and disability more generally. Disappointingly there is no case law on menopause within the family law context even though many women will experience peri/menopause as one of the most unsettling  periods in their lives. No doubt this helps to explain why many women are driven to give up the reigns on their marriage and/or their jobs. In which case, how are women meant to make pension contributions if their health and earning capacity is dwindling? The search for gender equality is going to have to include  financial equality as a matter of urgency if it is to prevent women falling into long-term poverty .

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