WHAT'S the biggest threat to your wealth? Losing your job?

A savage bear market? It may well be the person you share your house and life with . . . a wife or husband.

Britain is starting to award jackpot-style divorce settlements. In time, they may well spread across the rest of Europe. Estranged spouses, who might once have expected to live merely comfortably, can now expect to be multimillionaires in their own right, if they're splitting up with the right person.

There is no question that some of the decisions handed down recently by the British courts have been eye-popping in their generosity.

"Committing adultery, the biggest reason behind divorce, could cost its perpetrator dearly, " Andrea McLaren, a specialist in divorce settlements at Grant Thornton UK LLP, said in a statement on recent developments in the law.

Alan Miller, a fund manager at New Star Asset Management Group, was asked to pay £5m ( 7m) to his estranged wife, Melissa.

Their marriage lasted less than three years. Ken McFarlane, a partner in the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche Tohmatsu, was ordered by a court to pay his former wife £250,000 ( 360,000) every year for the rest of her life.

Both settlements are now being reviewed by Britain's highest court.

Among wealthy entrepreneurs and company bosses, the payouts can be even larger. WPP Group chief executive Martin Sorrell had to fork out about £30m ( 43m) when he divorced his wife, Sandra. The settlement included two underground parking spaces at London's Harrods department store, without which life in the British capital would be unbearable for some people.

In 2004, Stephen Marks, chairman of fashion chain French Connection, sold shares valued at £36.4m to fund his divorce settlement with his wife, Alisa. Indeed, divorce is now one of the most common reasons for the sale of big stakes by CEOs or entrepreneurs.

"There is a lot of money around, especially in London, " said Barbara Simpson, a partner specialising in divorce at London law firm Boodle Hatfield. "And at the higher end of the market, a spouse can be pretty certain of getting at least 50% of that."

So what could you do to avoid those huge payouts?

One answer would be to try and shield some of your assets, either by parking them in a trust or putting them offshore. According to a Grant Thornton survey, in Britain about 16% of divorcing spouses tried to hide assets from their partners (almost all of them were men, as it happens) last year.

The trouble is, the courts are likely to take a dim view of that. Your spouse will have a good idea of how much you are worth, and where your money is, even allowing for the fragility in your relationship that took you to the divorce courts in the first place. In December, insurance multimillionaire John Charman was ordered by a British court to disclose information about a £67m ( 96m) Bermuda trust to his wife, which he claims to have set up for his children.

You could always move to another country. There are still big differences among European jurisdictions. But that may not work since you will have to be there for some time to prove residence. And you may have trouble persuading your partner. "Hey, let's move somewhere with cheap divorces, " doesn't have much of a ring to it.

If you have yet to tie the knot, you could get married in a Hindu ceremony in Bali, as Mick Jagger did in 1990. He later contested the validity of his marriage to Jerry Hall on the grounds that the ceremony wasn't legally binding.

Nobody would dispute that spouses of wealthy men or women deserve a decent settlement if the marriage breaks up. They shouldn't be expected to live in poverty, or even mild discomfort. Certainly, if there are children involved, there should be arrangements to make sure they don't suffer materially as well as emotionally.

Against that, does Sandra Sorrell really need £30m and two parking spaces at Harrods? Should Stephen Marks have to give up control of the business he founded because his marriage has ended?

Even in London, which is an expensive city, you might think a few million pounds was enough to set you up in comfort for the rest of your life. You might argue that one partner has helped the other in their career, and that may be true. Still, it is hard to demonstrate that being married to an entrepreneur or businessman is such hard work that a sum like that wouldn't be adequate compensation.

The huge awards now being handed out against senior businessmen and financiers seem punitive more than anything. Yet surely we have moved on from apportioning blame when a marriage breaks down?

"There are a lot of wives who previously would have stuck things out, " Simpson said. "Now, if their husband is worth £20m and they know they can get £10m if they split up, they think they might as well. Because you can have a whale of a time as a single woman with £10m in the bank.'' Indeed you can. From a legal system that used to seek to keep couples together, we now have one that provides massive incentives to break them apart, at least as far as the rich are concerned.

Still, that is the way the law is moving. In the end, the only way to preserve your wealth may be to choose your spouse more carefully . . . and once you've walked down the aisle, don't even think about looking back.