Where to draw the line | When are you financially free from a divorce?

Posted on May 14, 2015

Our law setting out how financial matters are to be addressed when couples divorce could be considered rather old, it having been made in 1973.

However, family law develops all the time through the cases the judges and courts decide. Sometimes though, there is a “Really Big Case” that comes along to get all of us family lawyers excited. We have had one of those on the 11th March 2015, when the Supreme Court (our very highest court with the most brilliant judicial minds) gave judgment in the case of Wyatt v Vince [2015] UKSC 14.

You have probably seen the case in the newspapers. Briefly, the facts are that Kathleen Wyatt (the Wife) and Dale Vince (the Husband) met and married in 1981. At the time, neither had any assets and they lived largely on state benefits; they were ‘New Age Travellers’ for a time. The Wife had a daughter before the marriage, who became a child of the family, and the couple later had a child together called Dane in 1983. The Husband stated that he and the Wife separated in 1984, after only just over 2 years together. The Wife argued that the relationship did not finally end until some time later. The Wife divorced the husband in 1992. For many years after the end of their relationship both parties continued to live a frugal life with minimal income and very few assets. However, in the mid 1990’s the Husband began a wind turbine company, which swiftly became and has remained extremely profitable with a value of many millions. He has now remarried and has a very comfortable lifestyle.

In 2011, over 18 years after their divorce and 27 years after they separated, the Wife brought a claim against the Husband for divorce financial settlement. She was asking for £1.9 million. The Wife brought this claim even though all of the Husband’s wealth was accrued long after the separation and divorce. She was also asking for money from the Husband to pay for her solicitors to bring the claim against him. This is not as unusual as you think nowadays with the restriction on legal aid.

So, what are the issues? Well, is it right that the Wife could make a financial claim arising out of a divorce after such a long time? The Husband and his legal team thought not and tried to have the case struck out before it could get off the ground. The case ended up in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court were considering a fairly narrow point and that was whether the Wife’s case could be struck out just because she delayed in making the application to the court and without the court ever considering whether she had a good claim or not.

The Supreme Court said there is no power for a family court to strike out an application made for a financial settlement, irrespective of how long a husband or wife has waited to make it. The Supreme Court said that the law does not place a time limit on making these claims, unlike, say, a personal injury claim.

So, Mrs Wyatt could bring her claim after all this time. Well, that’s not fair, you might think. But hang on; when Mr Vince was off living his life, working on his company and making his money, Mrs Wyatt was looking after the child they had together and the child he accepted as his when they married. That, said the court, is a valuable contribution.

So, what happens now? The case goes back again to the first court it started out in for Mrs Wyatt’s application to be considered properly. The Supreme Court did say that they thought Mrs Wyatt’s claim £1.9 million was ‘unfortunate’ but that she probably should have something – perhaps a mortgage free house and a bit of money. They also said it was right to order that Mr Vince should pay his own legal costs and those of Mrs Wyatt.

So, the lesson to take from this? When you are getting divorced, if you truly do want a ‘clean break’, to be able to draw a line and move on, you have to get a financial court order tying off the right of either of you to make claims against the other, whether in life time or against your Estate after your death. It would be a bit of a shock for a second spouse to have to deal with the financial claim of a first spouse after your death.

No one really knows what the future holds or how our fortunes will develop. Mrs Wyatt and Mr Vince probably thought there was no need to bother with a financial court order as they had no money. We can all see how that turned out and what a false economy that was. Getting a financial order would have been far cheaper for Mr Vince than the legal bills he now has.

If you need legal advice in this area, contact us on financialissues@jefferieslaw.co.uk.

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