What happens if a former spouse dies shortly after a divorce settlement is finalised? That thorny issue arose in one case in which a fabulously wealthy heiress agreed to pay £17 million to her ex-husband three weeks before he took his own life.
Before their 20-year marriage, the couple had signed a pre-nuptial agreement to protect the wife’s fortune. She was worth about £440 million before tax whilst his assets came to about £2 million. Despite having three children together, they had kept their finances almost entirely separate throughout the marriage.
Following the breakdown of their relationship, a settlement was reached whereby the wife agreed to pay the husband £17.34 million in two equal tranches. The husband, who was distraught at the end of his marriage, took his own life 22 days later after the first tranche of £8.67 million had been paid.
In those circumstances, the wife’s lawyers argued before the High Court that the husband’s death had changed everything. The Court agreed that his suicide had totally invalidated the assumptions on which the settlement had been based in that he obviously no longer had any accommodation or income needs.
Finding that the husband’s death had been ‘unforeseen and unforeseeable’ by the wife, the Court ruled that his estate – which he had controversially left to his brothers, rather than his children – was entitled to £5 million. That resulted in the estate being required to repay £3.67 million to the wife.