Top court scrutinises heiress's divorce

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s highest court on Monday waded into a German heiress’s divorce battle, a case that could have far-reaching implications for other feuding couples.

People walk out of the building that will house the United Kingdom's new Supreme Court in Westminster, September 14, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

At stake in the legal tussle between Katrin Radmacher, heiress to a paper industry fortune, and her French ex-husband Nicolas Granatino, is a settlement worth millions of pounds and the status of pre-nuptial agreements in English law.

A lower court in 2008 awarded Granatino 5.9 million pounds, but Radmacher appealed, citing an agreement signed in Germany in 1998 before the couple married in London that stipulated he would get nothing if the pair divorced.

In a landmark decision, the Court of Appeal ruled last July that the pre-nuptial agreement was valid, reducing Granatino’s settlement to 1 million pounds.

Before that ruling, English courts did not recognise such agreements, in which couples decide before their marriage how they would split their assets in the event of a divorce.

Separately from the disputed lump sum, Radmacher has agreed to provide her ex-husband with a house until the youngest of their two daughters, who is seven, turns 22, and to pay 700,000 pounds’ worth of his debts.

But Granatino appealed against the decision validating the pre-nuptial contract and that issue will be decided by the Supreme Court. The hearing is scheduled to last two days, with a decision due several weeks later.

Family lawyers have said that if the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s ruling, they expected a surge in the number of pre-nuptial agreements -- especially involving wealthy brides and grooms.

Granatino’s lawyers have argued that he should not be held to the terms of the agreement because he did not obtain independent legal advice before signing it, and Radmacher did not disclose details of her financial situation in the contract.

Court papers showed that she earned an income of around 2 million pounds a year from her assets, which are worth more than 54 million pounds. She is expected to inherit up to 100 million pounds.

The couple’s marriage began to break down in 2003 after Granatino gave up an investment banking job that Radmacher said paid him up to 330,000 pounds a year, to become a biotechnology researcher at Oxford University earning 30,000 pounds a year.

Reporting by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Paul Casciato