Various family law issues were featured in the recent prime-time ITV drama Our House, based on a novel by Louise Candlish.
The series uses dramatic license to make the viewing more interesting and appealing to the public but still highlights real issues faced by couples who are separating including adultery, attempts at reconciliation, how the family home is dealt with and the arrangements for the children to spend time with both parents.
The series saw the couple featured, Fiona and Bram Lawson, separate following Bram committing adultery with one of Fi’s friends. Bram instantly regrets his actions and says that he still loves Fi and wants to make the marriage work. Fi is, understandably, upset and shocked by Bram’s actions and is firm that she wishes to separate.
Adultery is one of the common reasons for relationships to breakdown. It is, until 6 April 2022, one of five facts that can be relied on as evidence of a marriage breaking down when initiating divorce proceedings. Following 6 April 2022 it will no longer be possible to file a divorce application based on adultery as the current divorce legislation is being updated drastically to allow married couples to divorce immediately without attributing blame for the marriage breakdown.
The family home
The beginning of the drama saw Fi return to the family home one day, following the separation, to strangers moving into the property. It transpired later in the series that Bram had unilaterally sold the property to new owners without Fi’s knowledge, despite it being in joint names, by committing fraud with a third party impersonating Fi. This raises criminal law issues of forgery and fraud.
The family home is often the most important asset for separating or divorcing couples given that it is where they (and any children) live. Discussions often take place surrounding whether the property should be sold, and alternative properties purchased for each party, or whether one party should remain living there and the other should move out.
If separating couples cannot agree how the family home should be dealt with following a separation then there are legal principles that assist with this, which differ depending on whether the couple is married or unmarried.
The family home is given special status by the Family Law Courts for married couples going through the divorce process. It is usually considered a matrimonial asset irrespective of whose name it is held in and how it was acquired. The starting point for division of matrimonial assets is that they are split equally between divorcing parties unless there is a reason to depart from an equal division, such as one party needing a larger share to meet theirs or the children’s needs.
The way that a family home is treated when owned by unmarried couples, unless an alternative agreement can be reached, is strictly in accordance with its legal ownership. This means that if it is owned in one cohabitee’s sole name, it will remain in their sole name. If held in joint names, it will remain in joint names (and will usually be either sold and the equity divided or one owner will buy the other out). Cohabitees can enter into declarations of trust when purchasing property to determine how the property is owned, if this does not reflect the strict legal ownership, and this will be relevant in the event of a separation.
Nesting arrangement for the children
The series saw Fi and Bram agree to a “nesting arrangement” for the care of their children. This is an arrangement whereby the children, for the benefit of stability, remain living in the family home and the parents take it in turns to occupy the home with the children during agreed time periods. This means that usually only one parent is living in the family home with the children at a time and for the remainder of the time they vacate and live in alternative accommodation. Such arrangements are uncommon and generally are agreed in the interim until financial and children matters are resolved. This type of arrangement may suit one family but not another and parents must be consider what is in the children’s best interests.
There are various arrangements available to parents when considering how the care of their children should be shared once they have separated. Any arrangements should be child focused and be capable of being facilitated by both parents around other commitments such as work. There is no perfect solution and different arrangements may suit different families based on their circumstances. The Family Court encourages parents to reach agreements between them so that they can be tailored to the needs of the family and to avoid further conflict of involving the Court.
If you would like to speak to a family law specialist about any of the issues raised in this blog or featured in Our House, please get in touch.
Our House is available on ITV Hub.