Tue 3 March 2015

The Court of Appeal has told the ex-wife of a millionaire racehorse surgeon to get a job as she has no right to be “supported for life” at her former husband’s expense once her children reached the age of seven.

The law is regularly criticised for being archaic or “out of touch”: certainly, the continued use of maintenance orders for the benefit of one spouse (usually the wife) to the detriment of the other (usually the husband) could be regarded as yet another example of that.

Maintenance orders, which can be effective for life save if the benefitting party co-habits with or marries another, can have a significant impact on the paying party’s financial freedom and even potentially on his or her ability to start a family with another partner.

This Court of Appeal decision made several newspaper headlines and media forums last week and it continues to do so. The decision is being widely reported as a landmark decision that all divorced women must go out and find a job, be self-supporting and not rely on "payouts from their wealthy ex-husbands".

In this particular case, Mr and Mrs Wright had separated in 2006 and divorced in 2008 after 11 years of marriage and two children. Mrs Wright, a former riding instructor and legal secretary chose not to work when she and vet Mr Wright divorced. Their £1.3 million, seven-bedroom home was ordered to be sold and the proceeds were split. Mrs Wright was re-housed in a £450,000 mortgage-free house in Newmarket plus stabling for her horse and her daughters’ ponies.

Mr Wright, 59, was ordered to pay Mrs Wright and the children £75,000 a year in maintenance and school fees when they divorced.

In 2014, Mr Wright went to the High Court to seek to vary the maintenance obligations, arguing that it was unfair to expect him to support ex-wife indefinitely, even after he retires, while she made “no effort whatsoever to seek work”.  Mrs Wright had done nothing since 2008 to look for work, retrain or to prepare herself for work.

Mr Wright’s application was successful and it was this application before Judge Lynn Roberts that Mrs Wright sought to challenge before the Court of Appeal.

Lord Justice Pitchford refused Mrs Wright’s permission to appeal, because he felt she would be unable to show that there had been an error in law or in the exercise of discretion when making the order. Judge Lynn Roberts had been unimpressed with the fact that Mrs Wright had done nothing to find work and had found Mrs Wright to be evasive about her earning capacity. Mrs Wright was seen to exaggerate her income needs and her “other reasons relating to responsibility for animals or trees or housekeeping" as preventing her from working was specifically rejected.

Lord Justice Pitchford stated: “At retirement, the husband should not be paying maintenance for his spouse." He added: “There is a general expectation that, once children are in year two, mothers can begin part-time work and make a financial contribution.”

He told Mrs Wright to “just get on with it” and find a job, like “vast numbers of other women with children” have to. He added that the original divorce order of the court to make maintenance payments was never intended to provide Mrs Wright with an income for life, and dismissed her appeal challenging a cut in payments. He ordered a gradual reduction of maintenance for Mrs Wright (as opposed to their daughter) over the five years leading up to Mr Wright's retirement at age 65.

The decision signals an end to leisurely living for ex-partners of wealthy spouses and will have a significant impact on future big-money divorce cases. The decision makes it clearer that spousal maintenance is no longer guaranteed for life and the fact that it is a decision on appeal gives it greater weight - it acts as a strong precedent for future cases in determining whether divorcees with children aged over seven should actively be seeking work. Already in recent reported cases judges have begun to restrict either the amount or duration of maintenance orders.

The full judgment is yet to be published. It is unlikely that the decision is intended to fetter the exercise of judicial discretion, in particular being able to have regard to the overall fairness of the potential arrangement and being satisfied that a spouse can generate their own income.

A likely consequence is willingness of the Courts to enquire further into what a non-earning spouse’s skills are and whether they can acquire an income for themselves, before limiting the financial support in the way the reports may suggest.



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