Ex-wife of millionaire has ‘no right’ to support

Divorce|February 23rd 2015

The former wife of a millionaire has been told by a family court judge that she has no right “to be supported for life” following her divorce.

Tracey Wright and her husband, a racehorse surgeon, got a divorce in 2008, having been married for 11 years. Mr Wright was initially ordered to pay £75,000 per year in maintenance and school fees for the couples’ two children. Additionally, the couple were ordered to sell the £1.3 million family home, with the proceeds from the sale being split between them.

The husband objected to indefinite payments, even after his retirement so, last year, he applied to have them reduced. In his application, he said that his former wife had made “no effort whatsoever to seek work”, so he should not be expected to continue paying her so much.

Judge Lynn Roberts heard his initial application and agreed that the £33,200 per year in maintenance should eventually stop. She ordered that the amount Mrs Wright receives should be gradually reduced in the years leading up to her ex-husband’s retirement. The judge said that “a working mother at this stage of [the children’s] lives may well provide them with a good role model”.

Mrs Wright appealed the decision, her application to the Clurt of Appeal for permission to appeal was dismissed by Lord Justice Pitchford, who told her it was “imperative” that she find a job, just like “vast numbers of other women with children”.

It’s not surprising that a case reported in such lurid terms would grab headlines. A wife told to get a job and stop living off her ex is very sensational-sounding, but in reality it happens all the time.

The courts are mandated to bring to an end the financial dependence of both parties upon each other, as soon as possible. Maintenance is only intended to last for so long as it is reasonably required. Furthermore, when it comes to spousal maintenance the court’s primary concern is addressing reasonable need on that basis. As part of the mandatory exercise Section 25 (2) (a) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 requires consideration of the earning capacity of both parties, and “any increase in that capacity which it would in the opinion of the court be reasonable to expect a party to the marriage to take steps to acquire.”

In this case, the couple were married for 11 years and therefore it was a medium term marriage, there had been a passage of time since the original order. It was not a long term marriage where the wife had long ceased working. Prior to their marriage, Mrs Wright was a riding instructor and legal secretary. She clearly has an earning capacity and her ability to earn will not be hindered by child care. There is nothing new or sensational about this.

As the Court heard at its various stages said, it is not unreasonable to expect the mother to contribute financially. Out of the initial settlement, Mrs Wright acquired a £450,000 mortgage-free house and stables for the ponies she and her daughters have. This does not seem to me like a woman who is struggling.

It is the Court’s prerogative to decide what the reasonable needs of each party will be going forward. In this case, they ruled that the amount the wife was receiving could be reduced. To me it seems like a fairly straight forward decision.

Read the judgement here.

Author: Stowe Family Law

Comments(13)

  1. Rachel says:

    AT LAST!!! A sensible judgment that is fair to all parties.

    It was entirely forseeable at the time the parties divorced that:

    a) Mrs Wright’s children would grow older and by the age of 7, she would be in a position to resume part-time work and then full time work sometime later.
    b) Mr Wright would one day reach the age of 60 or 65 and decide to retire.

    Therefore, a term order at the time of the divorce, with incremental reductions, would have been the best outcome for all parties and would have avoided the high financial and emotional costs of further litigation.

    The only people who benefit from joint-lives maintenance orders are lawyers. The lack of certainty created by joint-lives agreements and the need to return to court in order to make any financial plans, has a huge emotional and financial burden, not only for the parties, but for their children and any second families involved.

    I cannot think of a single situation in which a joint-lives order is preferable to a structered, time-limited agreement that can meet the needs of both parties and incentivises all parties towards independence.

  2. Luke says:

    The title saying she has ‘no right’ to support is misleading – what we are talking about is LIFETIME support.
    .
    If she had got 3 or 4 years support to help her prepare for the workplace that would have been very reasonable – but she’s already had about 7 years – and even with this new stipulation she will be supported for more years than the marriage actually lasted !
    .
    The fact that this is viewed as a ‘victory’ for common sense shows how far the Family Court adjudications have strayed from any form of sensible reality.

  3. Leslie says:

    I agree with Rachel. Finally. The terms needs based seems to have taken on a life of it’s own in so many judgements. Another vote for time-limited and in the spirit of there being an end to dependence over time.

    What are peoples feelings on a tail-off in support. X for the first 3 years, then X -15% for 3 more years then X – 30% for the final years before retirement.

  4. Rachel says:

    Luke is absolutely right when he says that the family court judgements are a million miles away from sensible reality. When you describe joint-lives maintenance to the lay person who has never been involved in divorce, they simply don’t believe it! When people hear that you are paying tens of thousands of pounds in maintenance decades after your divorce, they are aghast! I am yet to meet anybody who is not outraged by the concept that one person can live off another for life, with no responsibility at all to gain financial independence. In this case, Mrs Wright is living a life of leisure, with kids at boarding school at poor hard-working Mr Wright’s expense! But why not? Why bother going to work when the courts awarded her maintenance for life in 2008, with no plan or onus upon her to get back to work over a period of time.

    It doesn’t get much press that spousally-maintained wives are also entitled to receive full tax-credits if they do 16 hours of low-paid work. Spousal maintenance apparently is not income! So, a woman getting £5000 per month in spousal maintenance, can do 16 hours of low-stress work, earn around £500 per month, then get around £700 or £800 in tax credits too. Then, you guessed it…… the courts often disregard tax credits when considering the income of the maintenance recipient!! So not only is the system dreadfully unfair to the maintenance payer, it’s also unfair to the tax payer!!

    Leslie – defined reductions over time is the ONLY fair way to administer spousal maintenance if the parties divorce with very young children. Spousal maintenance should also be time limited according to the length of the marriage. It is perverse for somebody to receive 20 years of maintenance after a 5 year marriage. The current system of awarding maintenance for life, or until further order of the Court, means that payer has to return to Court in order to argue for reductions or termination of maintenance liabilities. Such litigation costs £tens of thousands. It is wholly disproportionate and unfair to rob families of their financial resources in order to undertake multiple rounds of litigation, when it perfectly forseeable that fairness is best served by severing financial ties over time.

    Spousal maintenance awards should be time-limited, defined and certain at the outset.

    • Nordic says:

      Rachel, I agree but would add 20 years of maintenance can never ever be justified. Spousal maintenance should be transitional support only and transitions do not take 20 years. We should treat both parties as adults and, as such, expect them to support themselves (after a short transitional period). We expect this from all other members of society, so why not (first) wives. In my view, this transitional period should be limited to a maximum of 4 or 5 years (4 years is generally the limit in a place such as Denmark).
      ..
      Also, we should stop mixing the kids into this issue. We have child payments to cover the children. Spousal allowances should solely be about the transitional support for one party irrespective of kids. Allowing the children to be used as hostages in both asset division and spousal maintenance leads to perverse outcomes.

  5. Giselle says:

    I do wonder how many divorcing wives are really in Tracey Wright’s position? I’m concerned that the way the case has been reported has made her situation sound like the norm. And it could potentially set a dangerous precedent which could be applied to others in a less fortunate position.

    The message I heard from the judge was ‘Women get to work’ oh and by the way, look after your children too. It really sounds like a step backwards for women’s equality. Motherhood is put back to the bottom of the pile again. And the judge was a woman!

    I have worked full time since my youngest was seven. My ex-husband used to shriek at me to get a full-time job and in the end I capitulated. He meantime, made frequent trips abroad, worked late and weekends in the office and left much of the child/teenage care, hosuework, etc etc to me. Juggling a fulltime job and motherhood under those circumstances was not a picnic.

    None of this is officially recognised. In court, you have to negotiate anything that strays from the 50/50 guidelines and in my case my barrister and solicitor could not . The fact that my ex earned 30k a year more than me when we divorced was also put aside as irrelevant by the judge. My solicitor and barrister were apologetic afterwards for the (female) judge’s ‘modern’ approach. I couldn’t quite understand what they meant – surely it was an old fashioned judge who didn’t recognise motherhood and career sacrifice as valuable contributions to a 32 year marriage?

    Now, after this latest ruling, I get it. But it’s not good news for the care giver or lower income earner (whether man or wife) in a divorcing couple.

    • Luke says:

      “The message I heard from the judge was ‘Women get to work’ oh and by the way, look after your children too.”
      ==============================================================
      .
      Giselle,
      if a woman was to say that she wanted the spouse to take 50% of the residency instead (obviously the spouse would do that how they saw fit) and in line with that a reduction or even a removal of child support from her then that would be a reasonable option – then they wouldn’t have to be the primary carer looking after the children that you are so concerned about and they would have more free time to go to work like men.

    • Marco says:

      The importance of children and caring for them a untiring them is certainly undervalued. Whether 1 month or 17 years of age a child/young adult needs support, albeit in different ways to become a mature and stable human being.
      It is extremely hard, in fact impossible, to have a full time career and bring up a family in the best way possible, something has to give. What sort of society are we creating for the future when our children have little or no family values, particularly those shoved between child minders, school, after school care and different homes depending on which night of the week it is. A nanny is paid
      more than the child maintenance paid to resident carer by the absent spouse.

    • Marco says:

      In this Order the Judge said that child B should not see this order until of age. Sadly, with the internet publication of the order, the details in this order and the intelligence of many young women it is highly probable that the detail of this order, even though the names have been replaced, has already been read by her.

  6. Joanna Harling says:

    Reading your article and the comments above makes me feel very sad. What you all appear to be saying is that marriage is a temporary commitment and it is reasonable to expect people to move on and forget the commitments they made to each other. I am not a religious person but see marriage and the decisions taken in that marriage in terms of contract and if one party breaks the contract they should ensure the other party doesnot suffer from the breach. I understood marriage is a lifetime commitment and therefore the starting point should be that the contract was made for life. I am not saying that should mean the higher earner should always totally support the lower or non waged partner but the situation at the start of the separation or what was the state of the contract when separated should be taken as a starting point for the lifetime commitment that marriage is supposed to be.

  7. annoymous says:

    Joanna,

    You say marriage is a contract, however , it cannot be a contract , as there are no terms and conditions on the marriage certificate agreed at the time of signing.

    What happens if the lower earner “breaks the contract”?

    Does the lower earner forfeit any financial settlement if they are in breech of contract?

  8. Rachel says:

    I don’t think that any of us would argue that children don’t need support. However, often when some couples divorce the man is left with 100% of the financial responsibility and a large proportion of the childcare. Many men have their children 1/3 or 1/2 of the time. If your children are in school then you do have time to train or work in some capacity.

    I am in no doubt that in many cases maintenance is very fairly payable and in some cases it is fairly payable for quite a number of years. What is grossly unfair is maintenance for life, with one party having all the financial responsibility and the other having none, FOR LIFE. So your kids are grown up but you still think it’s ok for your ex husband to support you not to work? I don’t think that’s fair. Joint lives maintenance also burdens families with enormous legal bills for decades as each life event concerning money must be contested in court. It also prioritises the financial needs of the first wife over the right to privacy of the second wife (who is forced to declare her income and assets in any future variation proceedings). The second wife’s income can then be considered to ‘free up’ the husbands income to pay maintenance. Is that fair? Would you be willing to divulge your private affairs to strangers and perhaps give them a bit of cash because they don’t work and you do?

    There is a way in which maintenance can paid in a manner that is fair to all parties. It must be defined and time limited in every case in order to create fairness for all. At the moment if the recipient fails to work or train the courts continue to make the ex-spouse responsible, often decades after the divorce. Is that really fair?

  9. TS says:

    I agree with many of the comment here, particularly Rachel’s comments open open-ended joint lives orders and the damage they do – particularly to second families. The only beneficiaries are lawyers and those ex-wives who refuse to move on and rebuild their lives, and instead take great pleasure in punishing their ex-husbands through their wallets. My husband is an exemplary father to all his children – including those by his first wife. He provides financially for them too and now supporting them (voluntarily) through University. However, he still pays spousal maintenance. The marriage lasted approximately 8 years and they divorced over 15 years ago. She entered the workplace many years ago and has been working full time since 2008. Every year she demands to see my husband’s p60 and on more than one occasion she has threatened to take him back to court unless he agrees to pay her more. In a recent letter she said he should start paying her an extra 500GBP month and that if she took him to court she knew she would be awarded more. This is on top of the 2000GBP she already receives a month. Does this seem fair? Particularly when the two eldest children are now at University? Its been a long time since she has had to pay childcare or picked them up at the school gate. This week, we have just found out from my husband’s employer that she contacted them with a Freedom of Information Act demanded to know how much my husband has been paid in bonuses for the past two years. (The answer by the way is nil, which we had already told her…… sigh). I repeat again, this woman has been divorced for 15 years and now has grown up children. She also now owns two houses with very small mortgages. Why – exactly – does she deserve spousal maintenance?

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