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Is $1 billion enough?

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In a recent decision by the Oklahoma County Court Sue Ann Hamm, the former wife of Harold Hamm, founder of US oil producer Continential Resources and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, received a judgment in the parties’ divorce proceedings awarding her with cash and assets totalling over US$1 billion.  Unsatisfied with the outcome, Ms Hamm has stated that she plans to appeal the decision on the basis that she was not awarded a great enough proportion of the more than $10 billion of assets owned by the parties.

The major asset of the marriage is Mr Hamm’s stock held in Contential Resources, a 68% shareholding currently valued at $13.5 billion.  Judge Haralson ‘only’ included some $1.4 billion of the growth in Mr Hamm’s shareholding during the marriage as an asset to be split with Ms Hamm, with the balance of the growth being considered to be Mr Hamm’s sole property.  It appears that Judge Haralson was satisfied that Mr Hamm’s contribution to the growth in the business should receive special recognition.

The issue of ‘special contributions’ of one party in big money matters is also a contentious issue in Australian family law.  Greater than ordinary contributions to matrimonial wealth are often put before the Courts as being ‘special’, ‘exceptional’, ‘outstanding’ or ‘significant’ having arising as a result of that party’s ‘ingenuity’, ‘flair’, ‘acumen’ or ‘stewardship’.  But despite the flowery language used by lawyers on their client’s behalf, the Family Law Courts appear to remain unconvinced that such the category of special contributions exists. 

Recent case law indicates that the Court’s current position is that all contributions made by parties, of whatever type (be they financial, non-financial or parenting and homemaker contributions) should be given equal consideration by the Judges determining how a couple’s assests should be split. In the 2005 decision of D & D FamCA 1462 Justice O’Ryan as described the process as ‘the exquisitely difficult task of assessing…those respective contributions’ and likened it to ‘a comparison of apples and carrots’.

Regardless of the caution with which the Courts have treated the concept of special contributions, when there are tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in dispute, or billions of dollars as in the case of the Hamms, it appears likely that parties who feel that their contributions to the building of significant wealth require special recognition from the Courts will attempt to rely on such a principle.  It certainly appears to have worked for Mr Hamm in the Oklahoma Court system so far.