A ruling from the Court of Appeal in the complex case of Work v Gray confirms that a special contribution has to be very special indeed.
Randy Work and Mandy Gray married in 1995. In 1997, the husband took a job at a private equity firm, Lone Star, and moved to work in Japan. In 1998, his wife moved to Japan to join him and they had two children together. Mr Work left Lone Star in 2008 and the family moved back to England.
The couple separated in 2013. During divorce proceedings, Mr Work tried to argue that his contribution to the marriage – due to his success whilst employed by Lone Star – entitled him to receive 61% of the overall equity in the family home. His wife’s case was that the equity in the family home should be divided equally.
Decision of the trial judge
The judge ruled that Mr Work’s contribution should not be considered special; whilst he had been very successful in his job there was no evidence that his job could not have been performed by another employee.
Furthermore, the judge believed the fact that the wife had moved to Japan to be with her husband was a significant contribution in itself.
Therefore, the decision was that Mr Work had not made a special contribution that justified an unequal division of the matrimonial home.
Court of Appeal
The case then went to the Court of Appeal, with the following issues to be considered:
- What was the proper approach to determining whether a party had made a special contribution that justified an unequal division of matrimonial assets?
- Was the concept of special contribution valid or should it be regarded as discriminatory?
- Had the trial judge applied the proper approach?
- If the trial judge had been wrong, what should the division of the property be?
Court of Appeal Decision (April 2017)
In the event, Mr Work’s appeal was dismissed. The Court decided that:
- In determining special contribution, fairness had to be considered and there was a need to ensure there was no discrimination between the husband and wife in their respective roles. Parties should not apply for special contribution unless a contribution was so marked that it would be inequitable to disregard it.
- Special contribution was not discriminatory as the courts had interpreted it narrowly, irrespective whether the contribution was made by the husband or the wife. (The Court also commented that exceptional earnings may be a factor to move away from equal division of assets – but only when it would be inequitable to disregard them).
- The trial judge had given the matter much consideration and had applied the proper approach. The Court commented that it was sufficient for the Court to determine whether the contribution was wholly exceptional.
- There was no justification for an unequal division of wealth in the husband’s favour.
Implications of Work v Gray
The Court of Appeal said that special contribution as currently applied is potentially relevant only in a very small number of cases and the Court, when determining the case of Work v Gray, placed great emphasis on the public interest and the promotion of clarity and consistency.
- Very few cases will have the factual matrix to successfully run a special contribution argument
The Court stated that “there has not been demonstrated such a change in perceptions of fairness since Miller and Charman* to warrant a different approach to special consideration. As the House of Lords made it clear in both White* and Miller, the touchstone for financial provision under the s.25 MCA 1973 is the achievement of a fair outcome.”
- Achieving a fair outcome is guiding the Court’s decision making
Special contribution is not discriminatory but could become so if the concept was applied more broadly. “The courts have confined the concept of special contribution so that it reflects a significant, substantive difference, which does not require extensive evidential investigation.”
- Special contribution is currently a very narrow concept and is likely to remain that way
In summary, a party to a case claiming special contribution must demonstrate ‘exceptional and individual qualities’.
If you need any help, information or advice in respect of a similar matter, or any other family law matter, call Hannah on 01392 421777. Your first appointment is always free.
- Landmark cases Miller v Miller, Charman v Charman, White v White