For some time there has been a settled principle that after a divorce, the higher-earning spouse would have to pay the lower earner maintenance for life. But are times changing for middle income families.
Up to 2000 and the landmark divorce of White-v-White it was accepted that no matter how wealthy one of the spouses might have been, the settlement awarded to the claiming spouse would have been restricted to their financial needs. However Mrs White changed that in cases where the assets are more than enough to meet each person’s financial needs, they tend to be shared equally on divorce. This often included maintenance for “joint lives” – broadly until first of parties’ death or the payee’s remarriage. The increasingly generous provision made to wives post 2000 led to England being seen as the “divorce capital of the world”. However, recent decisions have led to a state of confusion in the award of joint lives maintenance orders.
An early indication that judges would not make such generous maintenance orders came in a 2011 appeal case decided by Mrs Justice King. There was just less than £3.5 million available in capital which was divided broadly equally. The first judge had ordered the wife would receive maintenance of £47,500 per annum from the husband for the rest of her life or until she re-married. On appeal, the original judge was said to have failed, amongst other things, to have looked appropriately at the wife’s current and likely future income, the husband's ability to pay the maintenance and to take proper account of the wife’s capital assets from which she could meet her financial needs. The appeal judge decided that making a joint lives maintenance order had been plainly wrong and that the wife, who owned a mortgage-free farm, could (and would) become self-sufficient; and that she had a safety net of capital in the form of the farm. The appeal judge did permit a period of adjustment for the wife, ordering maintenance payable for just two years and five months.
Last year, the Court of Appeal made a decision which followed similar lines. In Wright –v-Wright, Mrs Wright, the former wife of a racehorse veterinary surgeon, was asking for permission to appeal against an order which had been made reducing her maintenance. Lord Justice Pitchford refused Mrs Wright’s request saying that she needed to get a job and stop thinking that she had the right to be “supported for life” by her former husband.
Attempts to curb life time maintenance awards were given a wakeup call on 6 February 2017 in the case of Mills-v-Mills. Maria Mills, who received a £230,000 lump sum from ex-husband along with £1,100 monthly personal maintenance payments, fell heavily into debt after investing 'unwisely'. The original case Mr Mills was seen as "reliable and truthful" after 13 years of marriage. However post the divorce Mrs Mills fell heavily into debt, after investing "unwisely" in a series of ever more "upmarket" London properties in a bid to climb the housing ladder. The Court of Appeal has now ordered that Mrs Mills' monthly payments to be increased to £1,441 and told her ex-husband he must support her for life, because she is "unable to meet her basic needs". It was argued on Mr Mills’ behalf that he should not be the insurer against his ex-wife’s poor financial decisions and that the time was long overdue for her financial dependency to end. However the wife’s “needs” and her inability to meet them could not be ignored notwithstanding her conduct.
The case of Mr and Mrs Mills serves as a warning to parties getting divorced now in balancing the pursuit of a clean break against a life time maintenance award.