One in four marriages in the UK ends in divorce. Farmers are particularly vulnerable to marital breakdown because few occupations are more stressful, and stress puts severe strain on personal relationships.
The reasons farmers suffer high levels of stress are, of course, well-documented. Financial worries, long working hours, isolation, and complex paperwork all add to anxiety levels.
According to Christopher Jones, national co-ordinator of the Farm Crisis Network, which helps families in farming and related activities who are experiencing problems, marriages can suffer additional pressure if one partner – usually the wife – has to find a job away from the farm to bring in extra money. Her husband may then be burdened with both a heavier workload and less practical and emotional support.
Adultery is a common trigger for divorce and the farming industry is as susceptible as any other sector of society. In the rural radio soap The Archers, David and Ruth Archer’s marriage has been taken to the brink this autumn by David’s friendship with an old flame and his wife’s subsequent flirtation with stockman Sam. Although they are attempting to patch up their battered relationship, the couple’s marriage is still not fully repaired.
In the agricultural world, divorce is often a double-whammy. A farmer risks losing not only his family but also his livelihood. Many farmers might be cash-poor, but given that even modest farms often have a significant market value, a divorce could mean the sale of the business and all its assets.
Such a scenario is potentially financially ruinous not only for the divorcing farmer, it can also impact on others such as farm workers who, in addition to losing their job, may lose their accommodation. Although it is not as common as it once was to pass a farm on to the next generation, many enterprises are still handed down to younger family members and a divorce could frustrate those plans.
When any business is a family affair, the valuation and division of the assets has traditionally been an area for argument when marriages break down. This has come to the fore in recent years with the courts’ renewed emphasis on “fairness” and the “yardstick of equality” when dividing assets. Farming cases present particular problems, not least when the farm has been passed on through a number of generations.
A recent divorce case to pass through the courts involved a couple who had spent almost 20 years of their married life together running the family farm. The farm had been inherited by the husband and been in his family for many generations.
The farm was acknowledged to be more than simply a source of income to him. Although the wife didn’t want it sold, the financial settlement she was seeking would almost certainly have resulted in a sale with devastating implications for her husband and others.
The judge ordered that the husband pay a lump sum to his wife, which met her housing and income needs. This represented approximately a quarter of the family assets and the arrangement enabled the husband to keep the farm.
The judge made it clear that while in some cases the fact that the property was inherited might count for little, in others it might be “of the greatest significance” so that “fairness may require quite a different approach”.
On the particular facts of this case, he felt several points were relevant. These included the fact that the greater part of the family’s assets represented the farm, which had been in the husband’s family for more than four generations. The enterprise had been brought into the marriage with the expectation that it would be retained as an operating family farm.
The treatment of inherited property is only one potential complication that can arise in farming divorce cases.
There may be an issue as to the manner in which the farm business is carried out, which might affect the value as well as the liquidity of the assets available to the parties. It may be that the business operates as a limited company, partnership or trust or a combination of the three. This will require consideration of the interests of third parties and shareholders or partners, as well as those of the separating couple.
It is vital to establish not only how the farm business is carried out, but also exactly who owns what. Particular care is needed when considering tenancies – whether they have been created formally or informally – because the nature of the tenant and tenancy will affect the value and liquidity of the assets available to the divorcing couple.
The assets that will need to be valued and taken into consideration include not just the obvious land and property, but also livestock, machinery and equipment. It may also be necessary to factor into the valuation exercise any holiday lets, timber, mineral rights and income deriving from grants or compensation schemes. When looking at the farm balance sheet, it may be appropriate to make adjustments depending on the time of year to take account of harvest and trends in crop prices.
The least valuable farms are often those farmed under a tenancy, but even these can have “hidden” value. It may be that the tenant can purchase the land at a preferential price, which may be a relevant factor to take into consideration.
Equally important is the potential development value of a farm or estate. This is of increasing importance and it should be expected that development and even “hope” value will be investigated, however remote the prospect may appear at the time.
It is said that the five major events that can severely impact on a farming family are the five Ds – death, disability, disaster, divorce and disagreements.
Most would agree that only divorce and disagreements can be avoided.
Counselling is one way to try to overcome marital rifts, but for many farmers this might seem too radical a step. In which case, contacting a support organisation that understands the particular pressures of farming today, such as the Farm Crisis Network, could be the answer.
Another solution to marital crisis could be to “start over again”, by which I mean a couple whose marriage has been brought to its knees by the various stresses of modern agriculture might attempt to salvage their relationship by seeking out new pastures in the form of farm diversification – and seek them out together. This raises the possibility of refreshing not just their marriage but their business as well.
However, if a farming marriage is beyond saving, then there is little alternative but to engage the services of a specialist divorce lawyer.
He or she will try to ensure the parties reach an amicable arrangement between themselves, rather than encouraging them to fight tooth and claw for their rights in the courts.
Of course, the best way to circumvent these complications and potential pitfalls is to avoid getting divorced in the first place. Easier said than done, I know, but many couples who experience problems manage to overcome their difficulties and stay together, as Ruth and David Archer look set to do.
Neil Hobden is a partner with Birmingham-based matrimonial law firm Benussi & Co