Former wife told she has no right to be supported for life
Jane Croft | Financial Times
The former wife of a millionaire racehorse surgeon has been told by a judge that she has no right to be supported for life at his expense in what lawyers believe could signal that family courts are taking a tougher line on some maintenance awards.
Tracey Wright, a mother of two children and former riding instructor, was divorced from her husband Ian in 2008. She was reportedly awarded a mortgage-free house, stabling for her horses plus £75,000 a year maintenance and school fees.
Her former husband went back to the court claiming it was unfair for him to support his former wife even after his retirement, while she did not work.
A High Court judge agreed, ordered that her personal maintenance payments must cease — with a tailing-off in the years leading up to Mr Wright’s retirement — and urged that she go out to work to support herself. Ms Wright’s attempt to overturn the ruling was rejected by the Court of Appeal this month.
Lawyers say the decision signals a shift in attitudes by the family judges in divorce cases where vast fortunes are not at stake.
London has been dubbed “divorce capital of the world” because of the generous awards given to ex-wives, which stem from a House of Lords case relating to two farmers in 2000 that gave equal shares of wealth upon divorce. This White vs White ruling has led to a succession of large awards such as the £48m paid to Beverley Charman, estranged wife of John Charman, an insurance magnate. More recently Sir Chris Hohn, a hedge fund billionaire, had to pay his American-born ex-wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn more than a third of his $1.5bn fortune.
However lawyers say that the courts are now more reluctant to see divorce awards as a source of income for life — particularly for couples who have more modest assets to divide and where a woman could return to work.
Some public figures have also been critical of the current situation. Baroness Deech, an independent peer, claimed recently that the law as it stood, said to women that “once you are married you need never go out to work”. She has called for urgent reform of Britain’s divorce laws.
“There has been a sea change in attitude over the past few years really,” said Ayesha Vardag, a divorce lawyer. “I think there is a recognition that both parents do work and there used to be an idea that women would stay at home to look after the children. It can be very, very positive for a child to see a mother working and having a role in society.”
Lawyers draw a distinction between so-called “needs” cases — where couples often have more modest assets to divide — and “sharing” cases.
In “needs” cases a court assesses maintenance on the reasonable financial requirements of each party in the future. By contrast, in “sharing” cases, couples have built up huge businesses or assets worth many millions of pounds during their marriage, which are divided upon divorce.
In her blog Marilyn Stowe, a lawyer at Stowe Family law, noted that cases where a wife has been told to get a job and stop living off her ex-husband seems “very sensational-sounding” but, in reality, she said this 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. Furthermore, when it comes to spousal maintenance the court’s primary concern is addressing reasonable need on that basis,” she wrote.
“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 straightforward decision,” she added in the blog post.
Mark Harper, a partner at Hughes Fowler Carruthers law firm, said he did not believe the ruling would affect “big money” divorce cases. Here, even if a wife did go back to work, her financial contribution would be modest compared to the multi-millions at stake in big money cases.
“It does not mean that the wife of a highly paid banker would be expected to go out to work but the courts do require parties to take steps to maximise their earnings capacity. It’s an example of how the outcome is dependent on assets and income,” Mr Harper said.
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