Do I really need a financial consent order if there are no assets?
Let’s talk about the menopause. After all, it’s World Menopause Month. Anyone? No? Ok, I’ll go first. Menopause is lurking around the corner for this 49-year-old and any minute now I expect to be hit with hot flushes, sleepless nights and brain fog. I won’t lie; the prospect of menopause frightens me. In fact, the more I educate myself about the menopause (including its fabulous warm up act called perimenopause and encore of post menopause) and its (hopefully short term) consequences, the more frightened I become. I sometimes get to a point where I want to go running in the opposite direction of my computer screen, screaming. There I said it. But here’s the thing: running away in the opposite direction screaming isn’t going to do anyone any favours, least of all the women experiencing any number of physical and/or mental health issues as a result of the menopause. The menopause will affect half the population. In the UK, there are 15.5 million women experiencing menopause.
So why do I want to talk about the menopause? Simple. We have to talk about it. We owe it to ourselves (and each other) to be brave, speak up about our experiences and hope that what have to say individually will help improve things collectively.
At this firm, our aim is to help people following relationship breakdowns, so that they may move forward in a positive way. One of the best ways to achieve that aim is for us as family law practitioners to provide support to our clients. We should assume nothing and question everything. Our clients also need to feel secure enough to let us know what is actually going on in their lives. If a client was diagnosed with an illness for example, whether physical or mental, they would tell us. If a client lost their job, they would tell us. But if a client is going through the menopause, I doubt that it would even be mentioned. And that is a tragedy. We owe it to our clients to discuss and consider the impact of menopause upon her. Not only will that ensure that we are being as supportive as possible, crucially, it also ensures that any relevant factors which may have bearing on the resolution of financial matters, are given due consideration, and not merely ignored or swept under the carpet.
The average age of a woman going through divorce proceedings is aged 45.3 (1). The age bracket for women going through the menopause is between aged 45 and 55. So the chances are, that the point at which a woman is going through a relationship breakdown and/or divorce proceedings, she may also be on her menopause journey too. Add into that heady mix the potential commitments of children to raise, aging parents to care for and holding down a job, it must surely just get too much to cope with at times. It is time for us to discuss the consequences of menopause, to ensure that we are doing the best possible job for our clients. If we ignore it, we are letting our clients down.
Now you know why we need to have the menopause conversation, let’s delve a little deeper into the facts, figures and what we, as family law practitioners, can actually do to help.
My menopause education started with my mum. Listening to her talk a little about her experiences left me cold. Itchy skin and a funny taste in your mouth? That can’t be right, can it? So, I headed to the NHS website in search of some detailed and helpful information and advice. The NHS defines menopause as a time “when your periods stop due to lower hormone levels. This usually happened between the ages of 45 and 55.” (2) The information goes on to list some physical and mental health symptoms, but there was no real substance to the information being provided and I didn’t really find it that helpful. Where next?
Drum roll please for Mariella Frostrup and Davina McCall. In 2019, Ms Frostrup presented a groundbreaking documentary entitled “The Truth About the Menopause.” This, for me, felt like a real positive shift in general perceptions about women’s experiences. The Menopause conversation had begun in a very public way and it was continued by Ms McCall, who presented two documentaries on Channel 4. The first in 2021 called Sex, Myths and Menopause, followed up in 2022 with Sex, Mind and the Menopause. The documentaries by both women debunk menopause myths and give us information and advice that we could relate to and put to good use. If you haven’t watched them, you should.
Mariella Frostrup is also the Chair of Menopause Mandate, (3) a collective of like-minded individuals whose common aim is to improve the experiences for women going menopause. Menopause Mandate have produced a book entitled “It’s Beyond a Joke” which you can download from their website. As Ms Frostrup stated in the book “this is “about women’s rights.”
Most recently, I was delighted to read two articles in the September 2022 issue of the Family Law Journal. The first by Natasha Isaac and Farhana Shahzady entitled “Menopause and financial remedy orders – the hidden issue facing divorcing women” and the second by Imogen Robins entitled “Towards a menopause friendly family law practice.” Compelling reading and I would encourage all fellow family law practitioners to read them. Ms Shahzady in particular has been calling for greater awareness of the impact of menopause upon women going through divorce and the resolution of financial matters. In February 2022, Ms Shahzady launched the Family Law Menopause Project (4) with the aim “that family lawyers can ensure that their advice leads to the best financial outcome for female clients as they approach retirement.”
In their article, Ms Issac and Ms Shahzdy refer to a report entitled The Gen M Invisibility report. (5) The Invisibility report does indeed make for “depressing reading,” but nonetheless essential reading. The report references the 48 symptoms of peri menopause, menopause and post menopause. Of the women surveyed for the report, only 51% could name 3 of the 48 symptoms. This only goes to demonstrate the lack of understanding that we have about a significant, transitional time in our lives. For the full in-depth details of each of the 48 symptoms, you must read the symptoms tab on the Gen M website. (6) This gold mine of information sets out the symptoms, why they occur and provides top tips for those suffering with the symptom, together with tips for others around you, so that they may support you.
The importance of being aware of the menopause symptoms, is to start to understand the physical and mental health impact of menopause upon women. When we learn about the effect upon women, we can start to learn about the impact upon their lives. This in turn can help us understand the relevance of menopausal symptoms when it comes to relationship breakdown, divorce and resolution of financial matters.
It is important for family law practitioners to be educated and aware of this for two reasons. The first reason is that there may be factors that must be considered when resolving financial matters. The most obvious example of which is in respect of your client and their paid employment.
The Fawcett Society produced a report in April 2022 entitled Menopause and the Workplace. (7) The report has some alarming statistics in respect of the impact of menopause upon some women and their ability to work. Let’s start with the statistic that “one in ten women who have been employed during the menopause have left work due to menopause symptoms.” The report goes on that “14% of women had reduced their hours at work, 14% had gone part-time, and 8% had not applied for promotion.” More depressing reading that is, frankly, shameful. Thankfully, there is a growing movement towards ensuring that women are better supported in the workplace and Gen M are certainly part of that movement.
If the symptoms a woman is experiencing are having such a profound impact upon her ability to work, then there is every possibility that her earning capacity may be compromised, whether that is in the short or long term. Let me remind you. One in ten women leave their employment, 14% work reduced hours, 14% had gone part time and 8% did not apply for a promotion. In addition, a compromised earning capacity will have a consequential impact upon the ability to save for retirement through pensions. A compromised earning capacity and compromised pension cannot be ignored and is a relevant factor that must be considered when considering financial matters, to ensure that the end result is just and fair.
The second reason we as family law practitioners need to be aware, is so that we can support our clients in a more specific way as much as possible as they navigate their way through a divorce, with all the stress associated with that. By way of example, we need to mindful about how and when we contact our clients, what would be the most effective way to conduct a meeting, how can we best keep our client up to date with developments, right down to letting our client have control of the temperature in a meeting room if they are suffering from hot flushes. It just takes a little understanding, patience and desire to improve our clients’ experience through what can already be an overwhelming experience. Put simply, we have to be able to support our clients and tailor our service to best meet their needs.
Where appropriate, we need to start having the menopause conversation with our clients. It will take trust on behalf of clients to open up to us and respect on behalf of family law practitioners to listen to what our clients say. But we need to start somewhere.