17 February 2017

For richer, for poorer (even years after divorce)...

Jennifer Dickson
Partner | UK

This month two disgruntled ex-husbands have hit the headlines – both fighting in the Court of Appeal to reduce or terminate the monthly maintenance they are paying to their former wives.

Graham Mills claimed his ex-wife, Maria Mills, had been financially irresponsible, having apparently spent all the capital she had received upon their divorce in her unwise attempts to move up the housing ladder, overreaching herself and ultimately losing her home. She applied for an increase to her £1,100 per month maintenance, and Mr Mills sought a reduction. Although the first judge dismissed both applications, the Court of Appeal (Longmore LJ and Ryder LJ) has determined that Mrs Mills’ maintenance should be increased to £1,441 per month, a rise of 31%, concluding there was no other way she could meet her needs and that Mr Mills could afford to take the hit. Mr Mills was vocal in his protest about the outcome, saying that the law was unfair and effectively required him to be an insurer for someone he was married to 15 years ago.

Another former husband, Goran Mickovski, went to court arguing that his ex-wife, Kathleen Liddell, was earning too high a salary as a university lecturer to justify her spousal maintenance award continuing.

When Mr Mickovski and Ms Liddell divorced in 2011, she reportedly received £555,000 out of their combined capital of £1.2m and a term maintenance order, standing at £723 per month. Rather than terminating the maintenance as Mr Mickovski wanted, the first judge ordered him to pay a lump sum of £34,000, capitalising the remaining four years’ of payments. It is Mr Mickovski’s appeal against that decision that came to the Court of Appeal (and we understand Macur LJ and King LJ have yet to hand down their ruling).

Maintenance variation applications can be fraught with litigation risk – in some cases the amounts in dispute can be disproportionate to the legal fees that can mount up, and the outcome can go either way: the application before the court might be for a downwards variation or termination, but the judge could impose a capitalisation of his/her own volition, as Mr Mickovski experienced when he applied to bring the maintenance to an end.

Judges have to consider whether the financially weaker party can adjust to financial independence without undue hardship after a divorce and, if not, how much financial support they will need. There is no doubt that we have seen a shift away from the lifelong orders branded ‘meal tickets for life’ that were once the norm, and a greater expectation that the financially weaker spouse should maximise his/her earning capacity. However, although the judgments in these two Court of Appeal cases have not yet been released, the message received seems to have been that ‘needs’ remains the trump card. Each case turns on its facts, and particularly in a discretionary jurisdiction like ours, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach.

Jennifer Dickson Partner | London