Divorce for the over-50s is often traumatic. The financial settlement will be of vital importance in many cases, and essentially dictate the quality of life for the rest of one's days.

Divorce has only been a significant phenomenon in our society since the end of the Second World War. As usual, it took a quarter of a century before the law was altered to reflect that basic change.

The law was first changed significantly in 1967, and the current statutory provisions came into force in 1973.

The court was able to deal with questions of maintenance and division of capital. It did so simply by listing a variety of factors (such as age, earning capacity, financial needs etc) without any prioratisation.

For the next 30 years, judges fleshed out this structure, setting out how this list should work in practice. The slant was liberal, paternalistic, morally neutral and always slightly out-of-date.

Slowly the body of case law became ossified and increasingly formulaic. It no longer retained the original intention of balancing flexibility one the one hand and, on the other, a result which society would view to be fair.

Fewer and fewer marriages are taking place. A greater proportion are second and third marriages. Not surprisingly, the greater the number of times someone is married the more likely they are to get divorced. People are getting married later.

The singular feature of a divorce involving the over-50s is usually the absence of young children. The second most common feature is that often the income-generating years will be drawing to a close and a couple are very likely to be capital rich and income poor.

At about the turn of the millennium, a variety of factors changed the landscape:

Not until then did the court have the power to fully take into account and divide pensions.

In place of the doctrine of reasonable needs was the yardstick of equality.

Finally, globalisation and ethnic diversity made it increasingly difficult for the judges to know what society would consider to be fair.

This moral neutrality of the judiciary is understandable as a matter of public policy; but that stance can be monstrously unfair.

I recall one case involving a widow who remarried in her late-30s. A life policy enabled her to buy her house outright. A couple of years later she married a younger man who was lazy, a hard drinker and violent.

He worked off and on, but had no pension. She was the principal breadwinner. She had also created the most beautiful of gardens.

The marriage lasted about 25 years. The courts have decided that a 20-year marriage should be deemed to be a long marriage' with a presumption of equal division of capital.

The husband then went off to live with a younger woman who also had her own home.

The court said (applying the long marriage doctrine) that the home should now be considered an equally held asset. It was sold and the proceeds divided equally.

The husband used his share to enable the new woman to upgrade to a six-bedroom home, while the wife had to move into a one bedroom flat.

In the case of shortish marriages involving the over-50s, the divorces are often real dog's dinners, with one spouse introducing more capital, one with greater income, and with grown-up children (often shocked at their parent's choice of a replacement model) desperately smiling between gritted teeth and doing their best to undermine the union.

Added to this are problems thrown up by one of a couple ageing more quickly than another, or problems of dependency exposing defects in the marriage which had previously been papered over.

Each case is so very different. If I could offer any advice it would be:- If you are getting married for the second time, be sensible and cautious and enter into a pre-nuptial agreement If divorcing, make sure that you both agree to instruct experienced, non-confrontational solicitors who understand the particular problems and perceptions of those no longer in the spring of their life Consider mediation or one of the other negotiating models rather than immediately jumping into court proceedings If you are trading in for a different model you may simply be exchanging one set of problems for another, different set of problems.

Reflect hard and long - is an unhappy but at least shared life better than one which is uncertain and possibly bleak?

John Arnott is a family law specialist based in west Oxfordshire. A solicitor for 30 years, specialising exclusively in family law for about 20 of those, he has obtained specialist accreditation in family law from the Law Society and Resolution, and now tends to concentrate on cases, often complex, involving the financial aspects of divorce and relationship breakdown.