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18 October 2016

Civil partner wins appeal against estate of former partner who hid assets

A woman who discovered that her civil partner, who died intestate in 2013, had hidden business assets worth millions of pounds during the dissolution of their relationship has succeeded in the Court of Appeal as she seeks to set aside the original settlement, reports Family Law Week.

Family lawyers at Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth acting for the appellant, Helen Roocroft, say the judgment confirms that same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual partners under family law and reiterates the message that dishonesty will not be tolerated by the courts.

The judgment in Roocroft v Ball [2016] EWCA Civ 1009  has been handed down a year after the Supreme Court gave judgment in  Gohil v Gohil [2015] UKSC 61 and Sharland v Sharland [2015] UKSC 60 in which the wives, for whom Irwin Mitchell also acted, succeeded after their husbands were found to have misled them significantly regarding their wealth.

This latest case is the first to consider the discovery of non-disclosure of assets after the death of one of the parties.

Ms Roocroft, from Bolton, was in an 18-year relationship with her wealthy property developer partner, Carol Ainscow, when the two separated in 2009. Ms Ainscow, whose property company Artisan carried out developments across Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and London, died aged 55 after battling a brain tumour. She left no will. After her death evidence was discovered that she may have misled the courts about her true wealth during the dissolution of their civil partnership, saying her wealth had been reduced significantly following the property crash brought about by the recession.  This led to Ms Roocroft accepting a much lower settlement than she might otherwise have done in the circumstances of their relationship. Ms Roocroft sought to overturn the original agreement made with Ms Ainscow so that a new agreement can be negotiated with the estate based on an honest assessment of their assets.

After proceedings in the lower family courts and High Court, the case was heard in the Court of Appeal which decided unanimously that Ms Roocroft has a right to argue for her settlement to be set aside.

The judgment (not yet publicly available) said that Ms Roocroft had submitted evidence suggesting that "the deceased's income at the time of the consent order was three times that which she had stated in her Statement of Information".

It also reiterated Baroness Hale's confirmation that her observations in the Sharland and Gohil cases apply equally to same sex partners in a civil partnership as to a husband and wife in divorce proceedings.

The Roocroft case will now be re-listed at the High Court for a directions hearing to determine the next steps in setting aside the original settlement which would enable Ms Roocroft to negotiate a new one with the late Ms Ainscow's estate.

Ros Bever, of Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth, who represented Ms Sharland and Ms Gohil and who, with Paula Myers, represented Ms Roocroft, said that there were huge similarities as all three women believe they were duped into accepting 'unfair' divorce/dissolution settlements, based on knowingly false information provided by their ex-partners.

She added:

"This judgment confirms that same-sex couples have the same rights under family law as heterosexual couples and is further proof that the family courts will not tolerate dishonesty in divorce or dissolution proceedings.

"It seems that all too often partners, whether in marriage or civil partnerships, are trying to get out of their obligations to their former partners by being deliberately obstructive or dishonest about their wealth and assets. There have been many high profile cases over the past few years where the courts have shown they will not tolerate people trying to hide their wealth in businesses or refusing to pay their settlements and maintenance.

"Ms Roocroft now has the opportunity to potentially set aside her original settlement and open discussions on a fair settlement based on the true disclosure of the assets built up during the couple's 18 year relationship."