Western Mail, 15th June 2010
Engaged in April, but Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson were soon back in the headlines after ending their relationship. With two children together, Emily Woodrow asks: What happens now?
THEY seemed like the perfect couple. Two beautiful children, a stunning £800,000 house in St Brides Major, a gorgeous ring on Charlotte’s finger to herald an imminent lavish wedding, and a successful career to each of their names.
But behind closed doors, it would appear things were not so perfect.
So imperfect in fact, that after just two months of engagement, the Voice of an Angel singer and her rugby beau have decided to go their separate ways.
There’s no denying it’s a sad thing to see. A seemingly happy couple accepting things have taken a turn for the worst and being left with little choice but to split.
But as if coming to terms with losing your long-term partner isn’t enough to deal with, unmarried women who split from their boyfriends or fiances have a lot more on their plate when it comes to the legal side of the situation.
Divorce lawyer Melanie Hamer admits that although Charlotte should have no financial issues post-split, this is one area where unmarried women can really lose out.
She said: “With a married couple, even if the marriage was only short and there were no children, a wife who earns far less than her husband can apply to the courts to reach a financial settlement and even ask for spousal maintenance.
“Her chances of success, and the amount she will be awarded if she is successful, will vary from case to case, but the framework is there.
“An unmarried partner cannot claim maintenance for themselves.
“In my experience, many people in Wales believe that if they have been living with a partner for a couple of years or so, they become a ‘common law’ husband or wife, with the same rights as married couples.
“Unfortunately, there is no such thing. Similarly, others believe that by having a child together they acquire legal rights, but this is again not the case.
“The fact is that unmarried couples in England and Wales have significantly less rights and responsibilities than those who are married or in a civil partnership.”
It’s never easy having to break bad news to someone, least of all a vulnerable woman who has just been flung into the single life, perhaps against her own will.
And Ms Hamer confesses that telling an unmarried woman with no children who hasn’t contributed to a property that she has no financial claims is one of the hardest parts of her job.
“I’ve had many cases where such women have come to see me with high expectations of their financial claims against their ex-partner, and naturally they’ve become distraught when I tell them the reality of the situation,” she says.
“Such women can find themselves living like a princess one day, and like a pauper the next.
“Once they’re aware of their lack of rights, they’re incredibly vulnerable, and often will do almost anything their former partner wants to keep them sweet and make ends meet.
“This can be very disheartening for such women.
“I had one client who was completely controlled financially by her very wealthy partner – and had to ask him for money all the time – even money for a pair of knickers.”
Ms Hamer says there are also many instances of wealthy men with much younger partners with no financial security and these “trophy girlfriends” are extremely vulnerable, especially if they have no children together.
And she says women should be wary of men being fully aware of this.
While most women are proud of their independence, she believes there are plenty who can’t say the same, and it’s those women who need to look out.
The partner at Cardiff-based Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice adds: “In many ways, it appears Charlotte is in a different situation to a lot of women I speak to in the course of my work, in that it appears her financial standing is probably stronger than Gavin’s.
“Although it’s very sad that they have split up with two young children, from a family lawyer’s point of view, Charlotte’s had a lucky escape, as Gavin has no claims against her for himself.
“Even with the reports of Gavin going back to playing full-time rugby, I would still be surprised if Charlotte were to state she needed any financial support from him.
“In Charlotte and Gavin’s case, had they married, Gavin would have had financial claims against Charlotte for himself. Had they decided to marry, Charlotte would have been a prime candidate to have a pre-nuptial agreement to protect her assets wherever possible.”
So what issues will the pair have to take into consideration with regards to Ruby, two and Dexter, one?
“If a child was born after December 1, 2003, and the father is named on the birth certificate, he automatically gets parental responsibility, and a say in any major decisions affecting the child’s life.
“As Charlotte and Gavin’s children were both born after that date, Gavin will have an equal say in their upbringing, including, for example, which schools they attend in the future.
“One area where unmarried women do have equal rights as married women is when it comes to maintenance for the children. Even though Charlotte is a very wealthy woman, there would be nothing preventing her applying to the Child Support Agency for maintenance from Gavin.”
When it comes to contact with the children, Ms Hamer advises clients that it’s far better if a system can be agreed between the parties, keeping everything as amicable as possible.
She says: “Following a separation, it is often the mother who then has the main responsibility for the upbringing of the children.
“This can be extremely difficult – especially if the mother is a working mum.”
Prior to separation she may quite easily have been able to phone up her partner at short notice and ask him to collect the children from school if she is stuck in work, following separation he may not be as amenable as before.
“A working mum with main care and responsibility for the children can therefore find she runs herself ragged,” she says.
“But for a lot of unmarried couples who live together and then separate, the biggest stumbling block is often what happens to the house.
“This can become very complicated, and can lead to a lot of stress and anxiety for women who have split from their partners.
“How the property is owned, and in whose names it was registered, can make all the difference in the world.
“Where both parties have enough money to suitably house themselves it’s usual for the couple to decide between themselves what to do with a jointly-owned property, perhaps with one party buying the other out.
“There have already been reports in the press of Charlotte buying a beautiful alternative house for Gavin close to the children,” she says.
“However, it’s not always that simple. Many couples cannot come to such an agreement, especially if the money just isn’t there for it.
“In such a case, I would always urge both parties to look at their borrowing capacity, contact their mortgage lenders or anything else they can do to raise the money, such as seeking family support.
“Otherwise, if no agreement is possible, then an application can be made to court to resolve matters – though this should always be the last resort.”
Melanie believes the law which governs property claims between cohabitees when they separate is cumbersome, messy, and badly in need of reform.
If the parties own a property together in joint names, it is not feasible to “force” an ex-partner out of a house they legally own, except in extreme circumstances, and is therefore possible for a couple to be “stuck” living under the same roof – though in this situation common sense often prevails.
“Something that often comes up is that even if one party moves out, if their name is on the mortgage they are still liable to make payments. Similarly, if the party moving out was always responsible for paying things like utility bills, it can create problems if they no longer feel they should be doing so if they are no longer living at the property.
“I advise couples in this situation to sit down together and agree who will be paying for what, and to draw up an agreement in writing if possible.
“Splitting up can be a fraught and difficult time and the last thing anyone needs are arguments over who pays the water bill.”
She adds: “I hope Gavin and Charlotte resolve their situation in an amicable and dignified manner for the sake of their children. No matter what has happened between them, they will both be parents of Ruby and Dexter for the rest of their lives.”
The high-profile couple are now reportedly even considering living under the same roof, as singletons. Melanie hopes it’s a temporary arrangement and adds: “The early dignified silence on their part regarding the ending of their relationship looks promising. I wish them both all the best for their futures.” So do we.
- Always try and agree a framework when it comes to organising contact with the children. Keep everything as amicable as possible.
- When it comes to agreeing what happens to your joint accommodation, examine your borrowing capacity, get in touch with your mortgage lenders and do anything else that you can to raise the money, such as seeking family support.
- Seek legal advice as soon as possible; the lawyer will then be able to go through the options with you and give advice tailored to your particular situation. And remember, applying to the courts to resolve matters should always be the last resort.