Comedian Matt Lucas and his partner Kevin McGee are splitting up, in what has been described as the first "gay divorce". So what's different about the break-up of a civil partnership?
With the news hitting the headlines of the first celebrity "gay divorce" of Matt Lucas and Kevin McGee, following within days of Madonna and Guy's much publicised separation, certain important questions arise. Is gay divorce any different to straight divorce? Will divorcing gay couples receive the same sort of hefty divorce settlements that have given London the title "Divorce Capital of the World"?
Despite the fact that the courts have been carving up the assets of husbands and wives for years, it is still quite difficult to accurately predict what someone like Guy Ritchie will receive. It is even less clear in relation to gay couples since there have been so few cases to draw upon. Civil partnerships only began in 2005. Matt and Kevin entered their civil partnership in December 2006, making their marriage only 22 months long.
So are the rules the same for gay couples getting divorced?
Yes, virtually all of the same rules apply. As with straight couples, gay couples must have been married for at least 12 months before they can file for a divorce (or "dissolution" as it is known). Although Lucas and McGee announced in June that they would split, this week a decree nisi was ruled by London's family court, in the same way that it would for a married couple.
All the same grounds apply for a gay couple, save that "adultery" cannot be used since it is technically only possible to commit adultery within a relationship between two people of opposite sexes. Consequently, in same-sex unions, it is not applicable, although would probably be described as "unreasonable behaviour".
Splitting the assets
On the issue of whether money would be divided up in the same way as for straight couples, the courts have been at pains to emphasise that there should be no discrimination and that exactly the same principles apply. This means that they can each claim for a share of the capital assets, for properties to be transferred to each other, for their pensions to be shared and for ongoing maintenance payments.
The fact that the same claims are theoretically available does not mean that they will be appropriate in every case. Gay unions are statistically less likely to produce children and therefore it is likely that less maintenance orders will be made. That is because such orders often arise because a spouse has given up work to care for children, making that spouse financially dependent on the other and therefore in need of maintenance after a split.
It is most unlikely that Kevin McGee will get half of Matt Lucas's wealth, for the same reasons that Guy Ritchie will not get half of Madonna's wealth. Both Madonna and Lucas were well-known and wealthy prior to getting married and their relationships have been fairly short, particularly so in relation to Matt and Kevin.
The court takes into account a number of factors when deciding on the right award to make. These include:
• the length of the marriage/civil partnership
• their ages
• whether there are children
• how much money each had before the marriage/civil partnership
• how much they have each contributed both in monetary and non-monetary terms to the relationship
There is no easy answer to what Guy Ritchie or Kevin McGee will receive as the manner in which courts treat the division of assets on divorce depends very much on the individual facts of the case. This is why Heather Mills-McCartney only received what amounted to 6% of Sir Paul's assets whilst Beverley Charman (in one of the largest reported British divorces) walked away with 37% of the assets (just under £48 million).
It will, however, be important for the courts to demonstrate that what Kevin McGee receives is the same award that a wife in his situation would have received. Unless the courts can show there is an even playing field, there will inevitably follow a number of human rights act cases initiated by gay divorcees complaining that the treatment they have received amounts to discrimination.