The Supreme Court has ruled that a divorced husband should not have to increase payments to his ex-wife after she mismanaged her finances following their split.
The court today unanimously allowed the appeal of the husband in Mills v Mills, concluding that the judge at first instance had been entitled to decline to vary an order for periodical payments so as to require the husband to pay all of the wife’s rental costs.
The Court of Appeal had backed the wife’s request to increase periodical payments.
It was heard that following their divorce in 2002, after a 15-year marriage, she had received £230,000 in settlement of her capital claims against him, and it was agreed that the husband would make annual periodical payments of £13,200.
But by April 2015, following a series of property purchases and later the wife beginning to rent accommodation, she had debts of around £42,000 and there was a £4,092 shortfall per year between her needs and the existing level of the periodical payments.
Lord Wilson, giving the lead judgment in the Supreme Court, said the Court of Appeal had erred in saying the judge at first instance had given no reason for declining to increase the payments order. The judge’s order to retain existing periodical payments was restored.
Caroline Elliott, partner and divorce law specialist at national firm Shakespeare Martineau, said the decision not to increase Mr Mills’ maintenance payments follows recent judicial thinking that divorce should not constitute a meal ticket for life.
She added: ‘Instead, parties should be financially prudent and stand on their own two feet in the long-term.’
Ruth Abrams, partner in the family department at SA Law, said: ‘As solicitors we are experiencing a growing trend in the cases which we are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, whereby the courts are demonstrating a greater expectation on the non-earning spouse to take responsibility for their finances after divorce.
‘This may mean utilising an earning capacity or it may mean making sensible financial decisions.’
Ros Bever, national head of family law at Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth, said the judgment provides welcome clarity that a husband will not be responsible for a wife’s needs relating to provision of housing where she has mismanaged a capital settlement which was intended to meet those needs.
She added: ‘Campaigners against what they perceive to be the “meal ticket for life” of indefinite maintenance orders will claim this as a victory. While this is a very narrow point - the Supreme Court has been at pains to stress that this is not a commentary on the principles behind maintenance orders generally - it does fit with the general trend in this area.’
Tony Roe, divorce law specialist at Tony Roe Solicitors in Reading, also warned on reading too much into what is a narrowly focused judgment in a comment for the Gazette. ’The case highlights that only a total clean break, in cases where it is possible, will prevent protracted litigation and future applications for variations of periodical payments,’ he said.