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Ex-wife can make a financial claim against her husband 23 years after divorce!

Many couples are reluctant to spend money on finalising their finances on divorce.  This is often the case when the couple have limited or no assets whatsoever.  Despite warning clients that both parties will continue to have the right to make a financial claim against each other until the court has approved a financial settlement, many couples simply choose to ignore the advice considering a Consent Order to be an unnecessary expense.

The recent case of Wyatt v Vince highlights why it is important to tie up all loose ends on divorce and that means dealing with finances.  The Supreme Court made it clear that Ms Wyatt had the right to bring a financial claim against Mr Vince some 23 years after they had divorced.

Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince married in 1981, had a child of their own and Ms Wyatt had a daughter from a previous relationship who Mr Vince treated as a child of the family. The couple separated in 1984.  Mr Vince lived the life of a traveller for some 8 years after separation whilst Ms Wyatt brought up the children in what can only be described as extremely difficult circumstances.  Finances were strained and she had very little support from Mr Vince.  The couple eventually divorced in 1992.

Mr Vince went on to establish a green energy business and subsequently became a multi-millionaire.  In 2011 some 19 years after divorce and 27 years after separation Ms Wyatt decided to make an application to court for financial provision on divorce in the form of i) a lump sum payment and ii) interim payments to fund her legal costs.  Mr Vince cross applied to have Ms Wyatt’s application struck out.

On 14th December 2012 Mr Nicholas Francis QC sitting as a Deputy Judge of the High Court  dismissed Mr Vince’s cross-application and ordered him to make interim periodical payments directly to Ms Wyatt’s solicitors at the rate of £31,250 per month for four months.  Mr Vince appealed the decision. On 13th June 2013 the Court of Appeal set aside the orders of the Deputy Judge and ordered that of the £125,000 which Mr Vince had paid to Ms Wyatt she should repay to him the sum that exceeded her account with her solicitors, which amounted to a repayment order of £36,677.  Ms Wyatt appealed to the Supreme Court.

On 11th March 2015 The Supreme Court given by Lady Hale, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Hughes and Lord Hodge unanimously allowed the appeal and directed that the wife’s application proceed.  The Deputy Judge’s costs order was restored and the Court of Appeal’s repayment order was set aside.  Lord Wilson, reading the unanimous judgment, said that Ms Wyatt was entitled to bring the claim even though she may face “formidable difficulties” in doing so.  Nevertheless her “greater contribution to the upbringing of the couple’s children over many years … may justify a financial order for a comparatively modest sum.”

This ground breaking decision reaffirms the view that there is no time-limit for seeking orders for financial provision on divorce.  Sections 23(1) and 24(1) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 state that such orders may be made on granting a decree of divorce ‘or at any time thereafter’.  Ms Wyatt’s application is going to face difficulties due to the length of time since the relationship broke down, the fact the marital cohabitation lasted scarcely more than 2 years, the standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown was extremely low, it was some 13 years after the breakdown that Mr Vince began to create his wealth and Ms Wyatt made no contribution to the creation of his wealth.  However Ms Wyatt’s contribution was in raising the family.

Whether Ms Wyatt’s claim is successful or not will remain to be seen but the Supreme Court has made it clear that if couples do not finalise their finances on divorce, they will continue to have the right to make a claim against each other in to the distant future.   The ruling may now open the floodgates to anyone without a completed financial order bringing a claim against an ex-spouse no matter how long ago they divorced.

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