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Sunday 23 August 2009

Divorce: don't get mad, get everything

Wives who exploit the law to take all they can from their husbands demean women, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

'DID you hear they just released a new Barbie doll called Divorced Barbie?"

"Yeah, it comes with half of Ken's things and alimony."

OK, it's not a great joke, but like most divorce jokes, it has an authentic bitterness. Women's jokes are vicious too. "What should you do if you see your ex-husband rolling around in pain on the ground?" "Shoot him again."

John Cleese, who at 69 has just been taken for £12.5m by Alyce Faye Eichelberger Cleese, with whom he had a 16-year childless marriage, has reason to be somewhat peeved at the lady's rapacity. Part of the argument that won her so much from the Californian court was that she was used to private jets and staying in castles, which Cleese says is a serious exaggeration of their opulence.

I mentioned this to a friend who said: "If the logic of this is that the richer spouse suffers for treating the poorer one well during their marriage, shouldn't he routinely travel first class, stay in fine hotels and send her steerage to stay down the road in a B&B?" Can't argue with that.

Alyce has got their mews house in Kensington and their apartment in a New York hotel and Cleese keeps just the Santa Monica cottage. Apparently she is now richer than him. He offered this consolation: "At least I will know in future if I go out with a lady, they will not be after me for my money."

What makes it seem particularly unfair is that he made the bulk of his fortune -- from Monty Python and Fawlty Towers -- long before his third marriage.

Cleese is particularly baffled because his two earlier marriages ended in amicable divorces and generous settlements without the involvement of lawyers. But that was then and this is now. The 'because I'm worth it' philosophy has been enthusiastically adopted by the legal profession to persuade poorer spouses that they are entitled to every last penny they can extract from the richer. And that they can do so not just without shame, but with pride.

Ivana Trump coined the phrase: "Don't get mad -- get everything." In fact she didn't, because Donald had had the foresight to have her sign a pre-nuptial agreement that capped any settlement at $25m. She learned from him well. When she married her next two (relatively poor) husbands, the pre-nups they had to sign were watertight.

Of course, it's right that divorce settlements are equitable, that children are provided for properly and that a spouse's contribution to the marriage be recognised. ("Think what I'd have had to pay Alyce if she'd contributed anything to the relationship," mused Cleese.)

Was Mrs Rupert Murdoch entitled to $1.7bn when she was brutally abandoned for her husband's 30-year-old mistress? Yes: they had been married for 32 years, had three children and she had been a supportive wife and much involved in his business. Nor was she particularly greedy: Murdoch was worth many billions.

Was Jerry Hall meanly treated by the notoriously stingy Mick Jagger, who paid off the mother of four of his children with around £9m? Certainly. That represented less than five per cent of his fortune. But why was Steven Spielberg's wife of four years (one child) entitled to $100m -- half his fortune? And in what insane universe was a London fund manager required to cough up £5m after a childless marriage than lasted less than three years.

Divorce is almost always painful. But speaking as a survivor of two, I'm always grateful that we kept the lawyers at arms' length. I did not want alimony, having been indoctrinated by my mother into the notions that true feminism was about economic independence: she would have preferred to see me struggling in a bedsit than leeching undeservedly off some man. My mother was big on the virtues of pride, which encouraged me at least to pretend I was a civilised grown-up even when I felt like an angry child.

What is so wrong with Alyce and her ilk is that by exploiting the law to take the maximum off their husbands they demean women. They also, of course, demean the institution of marriage. To precede it with a pre-nup is a sign of mistrust which inevitably sours the relationship. Yet to plunge in without legal protection -- as Paul McCartney found out -- can put you later at the mercy of a vindictive spouse and greedy lawyers.

Every time politicians or judges bemoan the drift away from marriage, the fragility of families and the instability of society, they might examine their own consciences. It is the politicians that have made the laws that encourage acrimonious divorces and the judges who have interpreted them irresponsibly. Where the US and the UK go, can Ireland be far behind?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards