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12 May 2022

Family & Matrimonial

Working in family law – How true to life is BBC’s The Split

Part Two: A look at the other storylines

The last ever episode of the BBC’s popular legal drama, The Split, aired on Monday night, with main characters, Hannah and Nathan Stern, finally proving that it is possible to have “a good divorce” although there were a lot of bumps along the way. In her second blog exploring whether the TV programme reflects reality, senior associate Leah Thomas turns her attention to the other family law plot twists that captured our attention throughout the third and final series.

Set in the fast-paced, complex world of London’s high-end divorce circuit, The Split  focuses on modern marriage and the legacy of divorce. While much of the drama in Series 3 centred around the three Defoe sisters, their formidable mother and their turbulent relationships, there were plenty of other storylines dotted into the drama to keep us all enthralled. Here, I take a look at some of the smaller storylines involving the characters who came to Noble Hale Defoe to ask for family law advice.

Lenny’s ‘out of the blue’ divorce request

One storyline that runs through the entire third series is that of Lenny’s divorce. Top surgeon, Leonora, or Lenny, is the sister of Zander, the boss at Noble Hale Dafoe. She comes to Hannah for advice as she wants to end her seemingly perfect marriage to Felix but won’t reveal to him – or anyone else – the real reason for her decision. As the series progresses, we realise that Lenny is hiding the devastating secret that she has motor neurone disease and wants to protect her husband and sons from having to care for her, looking instead to arrange an assisted death in Switzerland.

Lenny goes to extreme lengths to keep her plans a secret from everyone. Her plan to divorce her husband is clearly an attempt to protect him emotionally and legally as she knows that if Felix was complicit in her decision to end her life, he could be seen as assisting her death which could be punishable by 14 years in prison.

Interestingly, Lenny’s storyline came at a time where the process for getting a divorce was about to change significantly. On 6 April 2022, the no-fault divorce legislation came into effect, meaning that neither party now needs to provide a reason as to why they are divorcing. This new law is designed to make it easier for couples to get a divorce without needing to blame their spouse. However, as Lenny’s story was set before these changes were introduced, she had to issue on the basis of unreasonable behaviour. Felix’s lawyer confirmed to Hannah that he would be defending the divorce petition and that he did not accept the particulars prepared by Lenny, essentially a list of what he has done that has caused the marriage to break down.

To clarify, defending the divorce petition was the process whereby one side tries to stop the divorce – it was not the same as disagreeing with the particulars. If a separating couple accept that their marriage is over, it was very common for one side to disagree with the particulars but to still allow the divorce to continue.

Defending a divorce petition meant the case may go to court while disagreeing to the particulars will allow the divorce to proceed.  Fortunately, the law has now changed so that this cannot happen.  Particulars are no longer required in divorce applications and you only need to tell the Court that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, resulting in the divorce being granted.  Divorce applications can only be defended on jurisdictional grounds and not, due to the other party not wanting to divorce.

Determining parental responsibility status

In a later episode, we meet Gus, Bella, and Sian. Bella and Sian are married, Bella is pregnant via artificial insemination and Gus is the known sperm donor. In this scene, Hannah explains that Gus, Bella and Sian are entering into an ‘informal agreement’ due to the nature of the conception.

This means that Bella and Sian are the legal parents and Gus has no legal rights or parental responsibilities whereas if the baby had been naturally conceived, Gus would be the legal father.

A parent, carer or guardian with parental responsibility can make decisions about a child’s care and upbringing. This story highlights that the relationship status of a child’s parents and how that child was conceived will determine the parental responsibility status. The law concerning parentage and fertility treatment, to include artificial insemination and surrogacy, is a very complex area of law and always requires specialist family law advice.  Informal agreements can be problematic and ideally, you should seek advice to formalise such arrangements early doors.

The grieving fiancée and divorced Countess

In one scene we see a meeting at the law firm’s offices between the grieving fiancée of an Earl who has passed away and his ex-wife, the Countess, where they are discussing the Earl’s personal belongings following his death. We find out that the Earl and his fiancée lived together as a couple for about 10 years after the Countess and Earl divorced and agreed financial and property arrangements, although it is unclear if a financial consent order was ever prepared.

One of the terms agreed in the divorce was that the Countess could stay in the cottage until the Earl’s death and that this was included in his Will. She quickly rebuts this by suggesting that the earl later revised his Will to allow her to stay in the cottage after his death.  As often happens in these cases, there is a crossover between different departments within a law firm, and we see Hannah asking her colleagues in the contentious probate team to check the Earl’s latest Will. As a family lawyer, it was interesting to see this storyline dealing with several issues.

Firstly, although the couple were engaged, because they were not married at the time of the Earl’s death, the deceased’s estate will not automatically pass to the fiancée. Whenever there have been important life changes (such as divorce, a new relationship, getting engaged or having children), a person’s Will should be updated to ensure that their estate passes in accordance with their wishes. Where there is no Will, or the Will was not updated to reflect the circumstances at the time of death, a claim could be made against the deceased’s estate, but this can be a costly and lengthy process.

Secondly, if there is a financial order in place following a divorce, it is best practice for a Will to reflect the provisions of the financial order if death will have an impact on certain assets. Where a Will differs from the terms of the financial order, the deceased’s executor will usually need to follow the sealed order unless it is unfair to do so. These cases can be complex and require advice from both a family lawyer and a contentious probate lawyer.

Get in touch

Leah Thomas is a senior associate solicitor in our Family & Matrimonial department at Harding Evans and knows how stressful and emotionally draining any legal proceedings involving your family can be. Our expert and friendly team can advise you on all aspects of family law. For a confidential discussion about your situation, please contact the Family Law team on 01633 760678 or email hello@hevans.com.

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