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The latest big-money case to be reported in the press hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago. It had the unusual feature of a classic car collection at its centre, worth (apparently) in excess of £20m. We thought we would get under the bonnet of the case and investigate it a little further.

In brief, the couple were married for five years and have three children. During their marriage they lived on the Caribbean island of Bequia and in a château in the south of France. The judgment is a lengthy one, but you can read it here.

The husband had made his fortune through an aircraft leasing firm, and had amassed a collection of classic cars. For the petrol-heads amongst our readers, those cars included a Ferrari with a price tag of £5.5m, an Alfa Romeo, a 1928 Bentley, a McLaren F1 and a McLaren P1 (of which only 375 were made).

This latest judgment concerned those cars, but it is not yet the end of the road for this couple’s litigation.

The wife in the case claimed that the value of the family assets acquired during the marriage is in the region of £54m, and sought half of that on a clean break basis. The trouble is that the source of the wealth was an offshore trust connected to the husband, which held the car collection as well as land in Switzerland.

Trusts have been the subject of several tussles in the family courts in recent years, and the present basic position is that a trust set up during or in contemplation of the marriage and benefits the family can be varied by the Family Court – it is ‘nuptial’ in character. A non-nuptial trust is generally beyond the reach of the judges of the Family Court in terms of making asset transfers to a beneficiary’s spouse.

In this case, the husband said he was facing financial ruin. He argued that the trust was not nuptial in character, and further that he was no longer entitled to the proceeds of the trust anyway so could only provide limited maintenance and no capital lump sum to the wife. The judge, Sir Peter Singer, reluctantly concluded that the trust was not a nuptial settlement capable of being varied by the court, as it had not been created in contemplation of the parties’ marriage. Naturally, the press have reported this as “husband allowed to keep classic car collection” and similar. What it means is that the court does not have the power to unravel the trust in order to extract assets for the wife. The trust remains the owner of the cars, not the husband.

Nevertheless the judge was unimpressed (to put it mildly) with the husband’s evidence and honesty in relation to the trust. Not mincing his words, he described the husband’s case as a “rotten edifice founded on concealment and misrepresentation and therefore a sham, a charade, bogus, spurious and contrived”. He thought it likely that the trustees would provide the husband with access to funds in the future, and as a result took the unusual step of adjourning rather than dismissing the wife’s capital claims. This gives her the chance to make an application to the court to resurrect her claims in the future, should the husband’s financial position change.

Condemning the husband’s conduct in relation to the case, and to act as a “stern warning” against aberrant conduct, the judge ordered the husband to pay 80% of the wife’s legal costs, amounting to a little over £334,000. In addition, the husband is to pay annual maintenance of £120,000 for the wife and children.

It seems that neither party has won. The husband has to pay substantive maintenance when he wanted to pay nothing but a nominal order (one where the claims are not dismissed, but nothing is actually paid), and has been landed with a large costs bill on top of the bill from his own legal team. The wife has been thwarted by the trust structure which holds the cars and other assets, so as yet has no capital settlement with which to start her new life.

Reports are that the couple have spent upwards of £2m on legal fees to reach a place where neither has won. Perhaps a sensible pre-nuptial agreement providing fairly for everyone would have saved this family the stress and expense; perhaps not.

If you would like us to look under the bonnet of your classic car, or have any other family law issues you would like to discuss, you can make an appointment on 01223 443333.