Supreme Court overturns ‘meal ticket for life’ approach – how far do financial obligations extend after divorce?

The Supreme Court has handed down what many have described as a ‘common sense’ judgment relating to a former husband’s obligation to provide financial support to his former wife.

In the case of Mills v Mills, the parties had divorced after a marriage of 15 years in 2002, reaching an agreement for the wife to receive the sum of £230,000 in order that she was able to rehouse mortgage free.  In addition, the husband agreed to ongoing annual maintenance to the sum of £13,200.

Following the agreement, the wife purchased a series of properties with increasing levels of mortgages and ultimately sold her final property in 2009.  By 2015, the wife was in rental accommodation and had debts of over £40,000.

The wife had applied to the court for an upward variation in the maintenance payable by the husband, whereas the husband had applied for a downward variation or dismissal of his maintenance obligations. At the first court hearing, the judge found that it would be unfair for the husband to be responsible for the wife’s shortfall in income generated by her questionable financial choices which had resulted in rental costs which she was now obliged to bear. The judge therefore refused to vary the maintenance due to the wife. 

The wife subsequently appealed this decision and the Court of Appeal, perhaps surprisingly to many legal commentators, allowed the appeal and ordered the husband to increase the maintenance payable to cover the shortfall in the wife’s rental costs.  The husband was subsequently granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court on the narrow issue of whether the wife’s housing needs had already been provided for in the original agreement and therefore whether the Court of Appeal was entitled to increase his maintenance to cover additional costs which the wife was incurring through rental accommodation.

The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal, ruling that it was not for the husband to be responsible for the rental costs of the wife as her accommodation needs had already been provided for in the initial agreement. The original decision of the court would therefore stand and the maintenance payable by the husband would not be varied.

Whilst some had hoped that the Supreme Court would go further and give clear guidance regarding the length of time for which a spouse should be obliged to support their former partner, the judgment is clear that a spouse should not be responsible for the poor financial choices made by the other party.

The case illustrates the importance of giving careful consideration when reaching an agreement on divorce as to whether a clean break between the parties can be achieved, such as an order dismissing all future financial claims, to include maintenance.  However, in those cases where this is not possible, this latest decision at least provides reassurance that a future obligation to pay maintenance should not be open-ended.

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