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Diary of a Divorce Lawyer: August 202110th August 2021 Family Law
Of all the emotive issues that arise at the end of a marriage, experience has shown me that the family home is usually the most important. A place of both good and bad memories, some separating spouses cannot wait to be rid of it and others want to hang on to it like a life raft to steady the emotional turmoil of separation. Inevitably the value of the property is important, it can often be the main asset of a relationship, with the one who wants to keep it pushing the figure down and the other seeking the best price. The first port of call at the end of a relationship is, therefore, very often the estate agent before the lawyer.
Michael Webster is a local estate agent with offices in Twickenham and Teddington and over 30 years experience, who owns and runs Websters estate agents with his wife and daughter. As a family-run business, they maintain a personal touch and Michael, who is a larger-than- life character is at the heart of the business. We meet for lunch in his Twickenham branch. It is the close of the stamp duty holiday and things are still busy.
I arrive with two lattes and the office is buzzing with calls. I do my usual check of the property sale displays to see what’s new, before we sit down to chat. Michael sold me my house five years ago and our paths have crossed regularly in the local area ever since.
Providing a valuation for the purpose of divorce is part of Michael’s everyday practice. I ask him if people are always transparent about the reasons for valuation.
“Sometimes it’s obvious that the owners are divorcing or separating” says Michael. “One of them will show us around and identify all the reasons why the property won’t sell or needs work done. This is usually an indicator that they are looking for a low value. Or they might tell us up-front that they have agreed to sell because they are divorcing and want the best price possible. We don’t charge for valuations and are happy to assist in whatever capacity.”
Inevitably there can be a great deal of attachment to a family home. Agreeing to a sale, being advised to by a lawyer or told to by a judge can be extremely unsettling. I have met many couples who have stayed together because of their home, finding the possibility of losing it, a stimulus for reconciliation, and others have fought tooth and nail over it.
When it comes to the end of a marriage, the court attempts to remove emotion and condense a life together into an asset schedule. With regard to the family home for court purposes, there is either an agreement on values, a cross-section taken by asking three different agents or a formal valuation by a chartered surveyor. The division of the assets (often equally) may mean that one spouse will keep the home and the other equivalent valued assets.
I ask Michael how he deals with divorcing couples where he is instructed to proceed with a sale. “We can be very flexible, we communicate with both of them but if relations between them have completely broken down, we call or email them separately with the same information. If property is jointly owned, we take instructions from both parties and do not proceed unless instructions match. We have been lucky not to experience any real difficulty and always maintain a personal touch to ensure people feel supported.”
Michael is right that they have been lucky not to get caught between warring clients. Recently I was representing a client who had left the family home three years before the court hearing to decide who got what. The court ordered that the home be sold but my client’s now former wife, who had continued to live in the property with the children, made viewings impossible and when an offer was received, refused to agree to it. My client was forced to make an application to court to force the sale and remove his former wife entirely from the process. Fortunately this is a very rare event, usually it is more low-level hindrance.
“Most of our clients’ experiences have been positive over the years and relatively manageable” says Michael. I can’t help but think that to some extent this is because of the personal touch that he and his team offer their clients; making an emotionally challenging time a hopeful one, as he helps them plot their future.
My experience as a lawyer has been that for many divorcing couples, the moment that they find their new home is often the first time that they look with hope and positivity towards the future, and Michael and his team can assist in making that process happen.