Divorce: What is Forfeiture of Benefits and When is it Ordered?

“So often, a party in a divorce is so aggrieved and upset by their spouse’s behaviour during the marriage, and rightfully so, that they cannot fathom having to give up an asset or let their spouse benefit in any way, upon divorce. We have had numerous spouses wanting us to apply forfeiture of the benefits of the marriage based on the other spouse’s bad behaviour during the marriage.” (Extract from one of the High Court judgments below)

Divorce all too often involves high levels of stress, antagonism, dispute and desire for revenge. So, when it comes to splitting up the marital assets, the thoughts of one (or both) of them may well turn to something like “It’s their fault, I want more than just my share, in fact I want everything”.

Which is where the concept of “forfeiture of benefits” (sometimes referred to as “forfeiture of assets”) comes in. It’s an old concept in our law and is increasingly being applied for in our courts, as evidenced in several recent cases which have received wide media coverage. But what exactly does a forfeiture order entail?

What is a forfeiture of benefits order?

The court in granting a divorce has a discretion, in appropriate cases, to order that one party forfeits either all the assets of the marriage, or a specific asset or assets. This overrides both the effect of the “marital regime” of the marriage (in community of property, out of community of property with accrual, out of community of property without accrual) and anything agreed to by the parties in their ANC (ante-nuptial contract).

When will a court order forfeiture?

Forfeiture orders are the exception not the rule, and the onus is firmly on the party claiming forfeiture to establish the basis and amount of their entitlement to it.

The Divorce Act provides that, where a divorce is granted on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, the court may order forfeiture if it is satisfied that one party will otherwise be “unduly benefitted” in relation to the other (the party claiming forfeiture will have to establish the “nature and extent” of that undue benefit). The court will take into account –

  • The duration of the marriage,
  • The circumstances that caused the marital breakdown, and
  • “Any substantial misconduct on the part of either of the parties”.

That gives the court a wide discretion, and every case will be different, but let’s have a look at three recent High Court decisions to illustrate some typical scenarios in which forfeiture was successfully applied for –

  1. A cheating husband loses his share of accrual
    A couple were married out of community of property with accrual. On divorce, that would normally result in a balancing between the parties of the asset accrual during the marriage, but in this case, in granting the wife a divorce from her husband after 12 years, the High Court ordered that the husband “forfeits the patrimonial benefits of the accrual system in total”, including his interest in the wife’s business.

    The Court’s decision followed its findings that the husband was guilty of “shockingly egregious” misconduct during most of the marriage, including living away from home, failing to “contribute to the common home financially, emotionally, or in any other manner”, engaging in a long string of extra-marital affairs and attempting, whilst employed in his wife’s successful business, firstly to fraudulently extort money from it and secondly to hijack the business.

  2. A short marriage ends, and the wife gets nothing 
    Here, the High Court ordered that a wife forfeit her share of the joint estate assets (with “in community of property” marriages a joint estate is formed, which in the normal  course would be divided 50/50 on divorce) after accepting the husband’s evidence that she had “married him to secure financial wealth for herself, advance herself in [the] political arena by using his influence and to benefit from his estate.”

    Relevant factors considered by the Court – the short duration of the marriage (14 months from marriage to separation), the 39-year age gap between them, her lack of love or respect for him and embarrassment at being seen in public with him, and her desire to live an extravagant lifestyle beyond his means.

  3. A husband’s substantial misconduct costs him his share of a joint estate 
    In this matter the Court ordered the husband to forfeit his share of another “in community of property” joint estate, including an immovable property and a share in his wife’s pension interest. The husband’s conduct, held the Court, had been tantamount to “substantial misconduct”, including failure to contribute to household expenses, failure to pay his child’s maintenance until forced to do so by the Maintenance Court, extra-marital affairs and physical, financial and emotional abuse.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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