Today, the Supreme Court decided, unanimously, that a former husband was not obliged to pay increased maintenance to meet his former wife’s housing needs as they had been provided for many years before.
Whilst accepting that this was the only issue which the Supreme Court decided that it could or should deal with, a major opportunity has been lost to make the law much clearer as to when a former husband’s obligation to pay maintenance should come to an end, and that is very disappointing.
Graham Mills and his wife divorced in 2002, having been married for about 15 years.
As part of the divorce, Mrs Mills received £230,000, practically all of the couple’s liquid capital, which she would use to buy, outright, a home for herself and their son, and she would not need a mortgage.
Mr Mills was also ordered to pay maintenance of £13,200 per annum indefinitely.
Unfortunately, Mrs Mills made a number of unwise financial decisions so that by April 2015, she had no capital left at all and debts of £42,000. Her health has deteriorated as well.
She applied to the Court seeking an upwards variation in the level of maintenance.
Mr Mills asked the Court to either bring the maintenance to an end altogether or, at the very least, reduce what he was having to pay.
When the Court first heard the applications, the Judge decided to leave things as they were.
Mrs Mills appealed to the Court of Appeal and they increased her maintenance to £17,292 per annum.
Mr Mills appealed to the Supreme Court and he was given permission to appeal on one very limited ground, namely whether a husband in these circumstances should have to pay additional maintenance to meet his former wife’s housing needs when they had already been provided for many years ago (i.e. the payment of £230,000).
The Supreme Court had no doubt that Mr Mills should not have to pay anything more.
The principle reason why Mrs Mills was not able to meet all of her expenses was a direct result of unwise financial decisions that she had made after the divorce so that she was now struggling to pay her rent.
However, the opportunity that has been missed in this case is to give clear guidance as to when a maintenance obligation should come to an end.
As it stands, Mr Mills will have to pay maintenance until the earliest of the following: –
• His death
• Mrs Mills’ death
• Mrs Mills’ remarriage
• The Court bringing to an end, Mr Mills’ obligation to pay maintenance.
As long ago as 1984, the law was changed fundamentally.
From then on, Judges are obliged to consider if and when a maintenance obligation should be brought to an end. The rationale of this change, 34 years ago, was to encourage and promote financial independence if possible.
Inevitably, there will be some cases where this is simply impossible, for example, due to age or ill-health.
In many cases, it should be possible for there to be a termination of financial ties between couples when they divorce, either immediately or over a period of time.
In practice, Judges up and down the country take different views and all too often 1984 reforms are ignored.
18 July 2018