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Divorce – important developments on spousal maintenance

It’s an issue that has long been debated – are post-divorce maintenance orders with no end date a ‘meal ticket for life’ or an appropriate and sensible way of ensuring an ex-partner’s ongoing needs are fairly met?

Now, two important legal developments seem to shed some light on this emotive area of the law:

  • The Supreme Court has ruled that divorced husband Graham Mills should not have to increase payments to his ex-wife after she mismanaged finances following their split;
  • Kim Waggott, who was initially awarded a £9.6 million divorce settlement and £175,000 in annual maintenance, has been refused permission by the Supreme Court to appeal against an earlier ruling that her ex-husband can stop giving her these monthly payments altogether in 2021.

Although it is incredibly unusual for a family law financial case to get as far as the Supreme Court, there does seem to a growing trend for English courts to encourage former spouses to have financial independence from each other.

So, what do the specifics of these two cases tell us?

Mills v Mills – background

Graham Mills, a surveyor, and Maria Mills, a beauty therapist, divorced in 2002 after a 15-year-marriage.

Their financial claims were settled by a consent order with Mrs Mills receiving £230,000 – more than 80 per cent of the capital as she was the main carer for their son at the time – and an open-ended spousal maintenance order of £1,100 a month.

In 2015, Mrs Mills applied to have these monthly payments increased by £341 a month to meet her ‘basic needs’ saying she was no longer able to support herself and was having to pay for rental accommodation.

Unfair to ‘pick up tab’ years after split

Mr Mills, by this time re-married, with a new family and a net annual income of £55,000, said his ex-wife had entered into a number of unwise property deals since their divorce and argued that he ‘should not be the insurer against the wife’s poor financial decisions’ and that it was unfair he should ‘pick up the tab’ so many years after they split.

He applied to pay his ex-wife £26,000 to end the maintenance payments once and for all or alternatively, to fix a date in the future when the payments were either stopped altogether or reduced.

Initially, a High Court judge agreed Mrs Mills’ monthly payments should be increased. The Court of Appeal backed this decision but the Supreme Court overturned it in Mr Mills favour meaning that though he still has to pay the monthly spousal maintenance set at £1,100, he does not have to pay the increase his ex-wife asked for.

This judgment seems to show that if someone getting spousal maintenance makes poor financial decisions, they cannot then expect their ex to bail them out by asking them to increase the payments.

Waggott v Waggott – the facts

Kim Waggott and her ex-husband William split in 2012. She was not happy with the £9.76 million settlement and £175,000 in annual maintenance and went back to court asking for an extra £23,000 a year for the rest of her life.

Mr Waggott fought the application and earlier this year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the annual payments to his ex-wife should stop in 2021.

Lord Justice Moylan said Mrs Waggott could invest some of her capital and live comfortably off the interest.

He said: “The expression ‘meal ticket for life’ can be used as an unfair trope. I of course acknowledge that long-term maintenance can be required as part of a fair outcome. But it is plain to me that the wife would be able to adjust, without undue hardship, to the termination of maintenance.”

The Supreme Court refused Mrs Waggott permission to appeal because the application did not raise an arguable point of law.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that courts have wide discretion when dealing with maintenance variation dependent on the facts of each case.

For legal help and advice about divorce, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Family Law and Divorce team by phone or by calling into one of our 11 local offices.

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