What's a Woman Worth?

05 FEB 2010

BARONESS RUTH DEECH, Gresham Professor of Law

Imagine three sisters. One is very pretty and marries a national footballer; they have no children and it is a short marriage before she leaves him for an international celebrity. The second sister marries a clergyman and has several children; the marriage ends after 30 years as he is moving into retirement. The third sister never marries; she stays at home and nurses first their mother, who has a disability, and then their father, who has Alzheimer's, and dies without making a will. Which of the three sisters will get the windfall: an amount sufficient to keep her in luxury for the rest of her days, when her relationship with a man comes to an end? And which one most needs and deserves financial support, even of the bare minimum?

The divorce courts are still trying to put women in the position they would have been in had the marriage not ended. If you marry a captain of industry, you become one yourself for all time, at least as far as the standard of living is concerned. The message is that getting married to a well-off man is an alternative career to one in the workforce. If you are married to a clergyman with a tied house and little income you will get next to nothing and, of course, not even the continued occupation of the vicarage. If your parents do not make a will in your favour and you are over the age of majority, you might be able to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, but to be eligible the claimant has to have been economically dependant on the deceased and in the case of the carer daughter it was more probably the other way round. This particular statutory law of inheritance rewards the mistress who is kept by the old man but not so readily the carer-daughter.

To read the rest of this article, see December [2009] Family Law journal.

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