Concept for - Cohabitation and the myth of a short marriage

When determining the split of finances on divorce, the first place to look is Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. This section lists the factors that a Court will consider when dealing with the financial arrangements or, if discussions are taking place outside of Court, the factors that your solicitor will consider with you so that an agreement can be reached that a Court will endorse.

One of these factors is the length of the marriage. This factor is important when it comes to how the finances on divorce will be treated. In the majority of cases, an equal division of the assets will be the starting point. This is known as the sharing principle. However, in short marriages, the Court are more inclined to ringfence assets brought into the relationship. This is understandably the preferred option of a spouse that has brought more assets into a shorter relationship.

So, what is a “short marriage”?

First of all, the term “short marriage” is deceiving. The Court will not just look at the time between the date of the marriage and the date of the separation, it will also factor in any period that the couple lived with one another prior to the wedding. If, for example, a couple cohabited for 15 years before marrying, and then divorced after just a year, the length of their marriage would be 16 years.

This approach is a cause of frustration for some, especially where there are limited rights for cohabitees (unmarried couples that live with one another) under the law of England and Wales. It can be a shock to realise that a short and unsuccessful marriage has completely changed the nature of the claims the parties have against one another.

Even if factoring in cohabitation, there are no set rules as to what would constitute a short marriage. It was historically thought that a relationship of five years or less would be considered short. However, in Sharp v Sharp, one of the leading cases in this area, the Judge accepted a marriage of six years as being a short marriage. Each marriage will depend on its circumstances, therefore. If there are no children of the relationship, or if finances have been kept separate, there may be a stronger argument for saying you had a short marriage.

My marriage was short – so do I get to keep everything I contributed at the start?

Not necessarily. Whilst the length of the marriage is one of the Section 25 factors that a Court considers it is not the only one. A Court will be more open to arguments about pre-acquired assets in the case of a short marriage but will not disregard these assets if it leaves the other spouse unable to meet their needs or the needs of any minor children, particularly the need to be suitably housed. In a case where a spouse has brought a lot into a relationship, however, a focus on just the other party’s needs is still likely to be a better outcome than an equal division of the matrimonial pot.

What next?

Whether your marriage will be deemed as short, and the impact that will have on your finances, can differ depending on the circumstances of your relationship. It is therefore best to seek specialist legal advice early on, so you understand the likely considerations in your situation.


If you have any further inquiries regarding a short marriage, please feel free to contact our Family Team we would be happy to help.