The landmark ruling – that divorced surveyor Graham Mills should not be forced to keep coughing up increased maintenance payments resulting from his ex-wife’s bad financial decisions – reinforces the need for ‘clean break’ orders.
The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision to increase Maria Mills’ monthly maintenance payments from £1,100 to £1,441 after she fell into debt.
Mrs Mills’ circumstances resulted from her making poor investment choices with the £230k financial settlement her former spouse gave her when they divorced back in 2002.
While the headlines of this high-profile case put the emphasis on an “end to meal ticket for life” for spousal payments, the reality is that Mr Mills is still inextricably tied into paying what is called a joint lives order.
Widely considered to be the most onerous maintenance order, it obliges him to continue giving Maria Mills £1,100 a month until she remarries, he or she dies – or the court makes a further order ending the payments.
The case initially escalated after the surveyor’s circumstances had changed and he applied to the court, over a decade after the settlement, to end the payments. In retaliation, his ex-wife fought to have them increased.
The case can be seen as part of an overall move towards clean break orders, so that the more advantaged party may pay more capital for a clean break. The court, for many years had had a duty to consider the possibility of a clean break in each case but sometimes there is not sufficient capital funds to pay to the less advantaged party to achieve this.
Such an order prevents both parties from making future and further financial claims of any kind against each other. There is an overall trend in court judgements over the last few years, that wives should maximise their own income capacity – even when spousal maintenance is paid.
Following the ruling, the lawyers for both Mr and Mrs Mills suggest further negotiations will be needed to look at capitalising maintenance – a means of helping to achieve a clean break even when there is a joint lives maintenance order.
It is a matter of interest perhaps that in Scotland spouses are only maintained for a maximum number of years. This may soon be regarded as a favourable option for England and Wales.
Whatever the wider outcome, the cost of litigating this case in the highest courts in the land will have resulted in heavy financial and emotional costs for a warring couple whose marriage ended sixteen years ago.
Keebles partner Vanessa Fox, has been head of the firm’s family law department since 1991.
The latest edition of the Legal 500 Guide praises Vanessa for her ‘broad knowledge of finance and childcare, and for her passion for collaboration; she is efficient, caring and robust’.
Collaboratively trained and a qualified mediator, Vanessa is a former chair of South Yorkshire Resolution and a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel and the Children Panel.
She can be contacted on 0114 290 6232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org