The recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Mr & Mrs Mills highlights the financial ties that ongoing spousal maintenance (income) payments create and the risk to the paying party where their ex-spouse falls on hard times in the future.
The Court of Appeal has ordered an ex-husband, Graham Mills (50), to pay additional maintenance payments to his ex-wife, Maria Mills (51), nearly 15 years after they finalised their divorce. The ex-wife received a large lump sum of £230,000 in 2002 as well as spousal maintenance payments from her ex-husband to be paid at £1,100 per month.
The ex-wife has since fallen on hard times due to “unwise” property investments and has been plunged into serious debt. She applied to the court to increase the amount of the monthly payments to enable her to meet her basic needs. The ex-husband, Graham Mills, strenuously argued against this increase. The Court of Appeal has agreed with the ex-wife and ordered the ex-husband to pay £1,441 per month for joint lives to meet her basic needs. This creates a life long financial tie between the parties.
The Court of Appeal’s decision is somewhat surprising. As argued by the ex-husband, case law over recent years has aimed to reduce the length of time that spousal maintenance is payable for by setting a term of years after which the payments will come to an end, rather than allowing ‘joint lives’ maintenance payments. There is now greater pressure upon the receiving party, often the wife, to become financially independent in the future. This is certainly the approach of the District Judges in most of our local family courts.
Of course, every case depends on the parties’ own individual circumstances and their basic needs. Whilst we would not want to see the ex-wife destitute, we do have sympathy with the ex-husband who is now paying for the wife’s poor fortune 15 years down the line.
Baroness Deech, in a recent bill before the Lords, called for an end to a life-long maintenance and argued for a cap on maintenance similar to that in Scotland. Mr Mills’ barrister, Philip Cayford, QC, of 29 Bedford Row Chambers in London, called for changes in the law to encourage financial independence after divorce, an approach which is also supported by The Law Commission. He told The Times:
“This is a paradigm case for reform of the law. How can a woman in this situation after 15 years of marriage expect now to be maintained for the next 50?”
This case is a reminder that the amount of spousal maintenance payments can be varied upwards or downwards, or cut off. Ideally, such income claims should be brought to an end at some point in the future whenever possible to try to provide financial certainty for the parties. Perhaps we will see some further debate and reform on this issue in the near future.
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