23 March 2018
You divorced 23 years ago. Your children are all grown up. You've worked hard and done well. Life is good. Then, out of the blue, a solicitor's letter lands on your doormat. Your ex-wife, who you've not seen for years, wants a share of your hard-earned cash. You're a bit taken aback, but you're not worried. You divorced so long ago and made all your money well after the divorce. Your ex-wife hasn't got any hope of getting a penny, right? Wrong. On 11 March, the Supreme Court gave a judgment in a case called Vince v Wyatt. The Court said that Mrs Wyatt should be allowed to pursue a claim against her former husband despite the fact that they divorced over 23 years ago and separated over 30 years ago. In brief, Mr Vince and Mrs Wyatt married in 1981. They separated in 1984 and had one son. Mrs Wyatt had a daughter for a former relationship but Mr Vince treated her as his own during the marriage. The family led a travellers' lifestyle, moving around the country. They had little income and no assets to speak of at the time of the divorce. Mr Vince did not provide much financial support to Mrs Wyatt or the children. In the late nineties, Mr Vince started an eco-energy business, which went on to become very successful. His business is now worth over £50m. By contrast, Mrs Wyatt lives in an ex-local authority home and survives on low paid work and benefits. In 2011 Mrs Wyatt issued a claim against Mr Vince seeking a payment from him of £1.9m. Mr Vince applied to have the claim struck out on the basis that Mrs Wyatt had delayed her claims. While the first Judge did not allow Mr Vince's application, the Court of Appeal did and Mrs Wyatt's claim was dismissed. However, she appealed to the Supreme Court. On the face of it, the Supreme Court's decision seems unfair. Such a long time has passed since Mr Vince and Mrs Wyatt were in any sort of relationship, and Mr Vince made all his money long after their divorce. But, the Court's decision is in fact a technical one. The Judgment simply says that a case cannot be struck out or dismissed without consideration of the merits of the case. This means that Mrs Wyatt can proceed with her claim, but it does not necessarily mean Mr Vince will have to pay her a penny. However, the Court also said that because Mr Vince did not provide any financial support to Mrs Wyatt for their children, even after his business became successful, she may be awarded a modest sum to allow her to live in a mortgage free home. It is this latter part of the Judgment that may give cause for concern. The facts of this case are unlikely to be repeated and there is unlikely to be a flood of new claims. However, there may be some cases where couples separated or divorced years ago without dealing with financial arrangements. Whether Mr Vince will end up paying Mrs Wyatt anything remains to be seen. However, this case is a salient reminder of the importance of obtaining a Court order dismissing future claims at the time of separation or divorce, no matter how modest your assets.