Divorce settlements must change to make pension-sharing fairer, say experts

Divorce settlements should be urgently reformed to put pension sharing at their heart, experts have said after a major piece of research has revealed huge gaps in pension wealth between men and women.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: lolostock/Alamy

The research, based on official data, is the first to put figures on differences in pension wealth between married couples, as well as looking at divorced people and across gender, age groups, different incomes and wealth distributions.

The findings come as MPs prepare to debate the suspension of the triple lock in parliament on Monday.

The starkest findings are the differences between married couples, with men aged between 65 and 69 having more than six times the pension wealth of their partners: over £212,000 compared with £35,000 for women.

Married men aged 55 to 64 have more than three times the pension wealth of married women the same age, according to the peer-reviewed report by the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (Micra) and the Pensions Policy Institute. The report draws on data from the Office for National Statistic’s wealth and assets survey.

© Photograph: lolostock/Alamy Only 12% of divorces result in any pension division, according to recent official statistics.

For the age group most likely to get divorced, those aged between 45 and 54, the difference is smaller but still substantial, with married men having accumulated more than twice as much pension wealth as married women of the same age: about £86,000 compared with £40,000.

In 2000, the law changed to allow pensions to be shared on divorce. But the most recent official statistics indicate that just 12% of divorces result in any pension division.

“Divorce is a very emotional time for couples,” said Debora Price, the co-author of the report and professor of social gerontology at the University of Manchester. “It is especially difficult for them to think about pensions and often, the person with the larger pension – almost always the husband – does not want their pension to be shared as an asset in divorce.

“Women are often very focused on keeping their homes for themselves and the children, and are often prepared to give up quite a lot to secure that,” added Price, a former president of the British Society of Gerontology and the director of Micra. “Pensions are also complex and horrible to think about, and if you do think about them, you very often end up needing to pay legal and financial advisers to give you advice, which people don’t want to do. This creates a lot of pressure to ignore the pensions.”

Research has previously shown that men have very emotional attachments to their pensions and that solicitors are often instructed by the women they are acting for to ignore pensions because the emotional and personal costs are too high.

Even when pensions are considered, studies show that the fairness of pension outcomes is often questionable while the valuing of pensions in divorce cases is highly inconsistent across the country.

“Women often see the house v the pension as a trade-off but they do this in many cases without even finding out what the pension is worth and also without thinking about how they are going to live in later life,” said Tim Pike, head of modelling at the Pensions Policy Institute.

This, said Hilary Woodward, the CEO of the Pension Advisory Group, raises questions that need to be answered.

“If anyone needed convincing that more needs to be done to improve pension outcomes on divorce, the evidence is here in this report,” she said.

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