March 9, 2015

Spousal maintenance – an income for life?

On 24 February 2015, the landmark case of Wright went to the Court of Appeal in relation to spousal maintenance within financial proceedings. The ruling concerned the former wife of a millionaire racehorse surgeon.

Mrs Wright, a former riding instructor and legal secretary who lives with her younger daughter, 10, chose not to work when she and vet Ian Wright divorced in 2008 after 11 years of marriage. Their £1.3 million seven-bedroom home was ordered to be sold and the proceeds split. Mrs Wright also has a £450,000 mortgage-free house in Newmarket, plus stabling for her horse and her daughters’ ponies. Mr Wright, 59, was also ordered to pay her and the children £75,000 a year in child maintenance, school fees and spousal maintenance.

What is spousal maintenance?

At present, when married couples go through the family court, the judge is able to make an order for what is known as ‘spousal maintenance.’ Spousal maintenance claims are typically brought when there is a significant disparity in earnings between the parties. Often, this is the result of the husband and wife making the decision together for one of them to leave their job to stay at home to raise the children. If the primary care giver has given up a career to raise the children of the family, the courts will recognise this. This is because it is often a lot harder for the party that has once worked to go out and rebuild their career when the children are grown up, especially if they have given up a potentially lucrative career.

However, the recent case of Wright has sent a clear message to future divorcing couples with regards to spousal maintenance claims – that ‘meal tickets for life’ at the ex’s expense may no longer be guaranteed.

What could this mean for the future of divorce?

This case could see a distinct shift away from what is known as ‘lifetime” or “joint lives” spousal maintenance orders and may prompt (as with the Wright case ) a flood of applications to downwardly vary, or terminate maintenance orders.

Our Family team have already seen some changes - Associate Trina Gibson experienced this first hand at court last week. The judge referred to the case of Wright specifically stating that the tide had now turned against joint lives orders and in favour of a “clean break."

Share on: