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Divorce law blog

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming

29/08/2013   By: Nigel Shepherd

The 1966 American Cold War comedy The Russians are Coming might not be the best-known film around, but in view of what has been happening in the divorce courts of London recently it looks like a fair description of an apparently increasing trend – picked up on by Boris Johnson last year when he urged the wives of billionaires and oligarchs to flock to London when their marriage broke down! This is because the difference between what you might get in England and elsewhere in the world can run to millions, so the stakes are high. However, there are complex rules about the choice of court.

In July, Alexei Golubovich and Olga Mirimskaya were said to have started proceedings here to sort out what should happen to their Chiswick property following their Russian divorce. They weren’t the first members of their family to step over the threshold of the divorce courts either. Two years before, Alexei’s son Ilva tried and failed to stop his wife Elena claiming here. She got £2.8m after only 18 months of marriage.

In August in a case involving huge wealth the High Court awarded another Russian wife a total of £54m. Although there have been higher settlements reached by agreement, this was the biggest divorce pay out ever ordered by a court here in a contested case.

The statistics show that around 24,000 of the 150,000 divorces a year involve an international element. London has a reputation as the “divorce capital of the world”. Why is this? The simple answer is that, for the wealthy divorcee, settlements here are among the highest in the world.

In some cases there will be a decision about whether the divorce proceedings themselves can be started here. The dividing up of the property and other assets then follows. There is one set of rules for the EU and different ones for other countries. Usually, but not always, the key factor is where you have been living recently. It is possible for more than one country to have jurisdiction. If you’re in the EU it’s a straight race in those cases to get in first. If you snooze you lose. In other cases the courts can look at the country that has the closest connection to the marriage such as whether it’s where you’re from, where you spend the most time or where the main assets are. 

In both the recent cases I have referred to, the divorce itself was in Russia, but it was still possible for the court here to deal with the family’s finances because they live or have property here. These kinds of application will usually come about when the foreign court either doesn’t have the ability to deal with the money side of things or their system means that the way they deal with it is completely unfair. In some places, for example, the law blatantly discriminates against women by giving them no rights at all and the English courts will step in to prevent injustice.

Although many of these proceedings will be highly contentious that won’t always be the case. I have dealt with a number of cases where there has been a divorce in America but we needed to get an order here to deal with the division of pensions. This is because a foreign order isn’t effective against UK pensions but by agreement both sides were able to ask the English court to achieve what the US court and the couple themselves wanted to happen as part of their overall settlement.

People will have different views on whether England’s generous divorce settlements are a good or bad thing. The Law Commission is due to report shortly on various aspects such as what should happen with assets you already have when you get married or get by way of inheritance or gift during it. The law may change. In the meantime if you are faced with a dispute about which country the divorce and finances should be dealt with in you will need expert advice and representation. 

Nigel Shepherd
Family Law Partner

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