Family lawyers say they have seen a tenfold increase in recent years in couples signing pre-nuptial agreements on dividing their assets after divorce. Resolution, a group of 5,700 lawyers, says the number has doubled in a year, a BBC Breakfast investigation found.
The agreements are enforceable in Scotland but not in England and Wales, although courts are paying more attention to them in their rulings. The Law Commission is to consult on their use in England and Wales. The Tories say they should become binding - but critics say people may feel pressured into signing them.
Such agreements set out what happens to the assets each party brings into the marriage - and their earnings during it - should they divorce. A succession of high-profile break-ups, ending in huge settlements, have raised awareness of their role. Lawyers say the increasing number of independently wealthy women, coupled with greater numbers of people marrying later in life with complicated family arrangements, has increased their popularity.
Resolution's David Allison said: "There's been a tenfold increase in 'pre-nups'. I'm doing considerably more now than I have ever done before and that experience is mirrored around the rest of the country. "People are doing it because they want to be able to sort this stuff out now rather than later on." Around 45% of marriages end in divorce - about 145,000 each year - and while pre-nuptial agreements are still relatively rare, more are coming before the courts.
They are already common in the US and are also binding in many European countries.
The Law Commission is not due to report on the issue until 2012 but the Conservatives want it done more quickly. Shadow justice minister Henry Bellingham said: "We want to bring in a fairly wide ranging divorce law reform bill and I'm very keen that part of it will include 'pre-nups' and make them enforceable in law, subject to very strict safeguards."
Some family lawyers say people may feel pressurised into signing them and that making them binding would be a disaster. Family lawyer Marilyn Stowe said: "The whole emphasis is on divorce reform - and I actually think we should be looking much more at marriage. I have to say if I was asked to enter into a 'pre-nup' I wouldn't."
At the Court of Appeal in July, heiress Katrin Radmacher overturned an earlier decision to award her ex-husband £5.8m of her £100m fortune despite their pre-nuptial agreement. Experts said the case could help pave the way for such contracts to become legally binding in England and Wales.
26th september 2009