But will it make any difference?
I have been following – at a distance – the annual conference of Resolution, the association of family lawyers. I could hardly do otherwise, my Twitter timeline being filled with tweets detailing practically every last word uttered by the speakers at the conference.
Amongst those utterances was the expressed desire, supported clearly by many of the conference faithful, that the term ‘meal ticket for life’ be consigned to the dustbin of history. That term did, of course, recently raise its ugly head in the case Waggott v Waggott.
For those who are not familiar with it the term ‘meal ticket for life’ refers to an award of maintenance payable by one spouse, most often the husband, to the other spouse, most often the wife, that will continue for the rest of their joint lives, i.e. until one of them dies. As may be obvious, the term is often used in a disapproving way, by those who do not consider that it is right that one spouse should potentially be liable to continue to maintain the other for the rest of their life. Why should one spouse have that burden? Why should the other spouse not be expected to maintain themselves?
Well, as Lord Justice Moylan said in Waggott, sometimes it is appropriate for a spouse, usually the wife, to be awarded maintenance for life. The classic example of that is the case of the long marriage in which the wife has foregone a career to look after the home and bring up the family, and the marriage breaks down when she is at or near retirement age, and therefore no longer in a position to start, or re-start, a career and therefore maintain herself to an appropriate level. In such a case, a joint lives maintenance order may well be appropriate, especially if there is insufficient ‘spare’ capital that the wife could use to raise an income for herself.
However, the reality is that lifetime maintenance orders are only appropriate in a tiny percentage of cases. What is more, back in 1984 Parliament passed the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act, which introduced an amendment into the existing law on financial settlements on divorce, aimed at encouraging the courts to limit the duration of maintenance orders whenever possible (I explained the amendment in rather more detail in this post). I don’t have any figures, but no doubt that amendment led to the courts making far fewer joint lives maintenance orders.
So yes, the term ‘meal ticket for life’ is really pretty superfluous these days. Most husbands can rest assured that they will not be required to continue to maintain their former spouses indefinitely. The court will either order a clean break, with no on-going liability to the other spouse, or will award the other spouse maintenance for only a limited period, long enough to give them time to regain their financial independence.
In these circumstances one can see why Mrs Waggott’s counsel was a little irritated by the term being used in the “recent public debate about how the courts determine a spouse’s claim for maintenance”, perhaps suggesting that his client was being mercenary, seeking something that no wife should really be entitled to. Similarly, one can see why Resolution members consider the term to be unhelpful and misleading.
However, the simple fact of the matter is that despite the passage of more than thirty years since the 1984 Act, the term ‘meal ticket for life’ is still ingrained in the national lexicon. Nothing that Resolution, or anyone else for that matter, can say or do will change that. Whether they like it or not, it will continue to be used in the popular media, just like that other family lawyer’s favourite: the ‘quickie divorce’.
Still, in the grand scheme of things the idea of the ‘meal ticket for life’ is surely not that important. After all, how many people actually expect their (former) spouse to maintain them for the rest of their life? Very few, I would guess.