Margaret Hatwood explains why it’s important to get a court order setting out your financial obligations when you get divorced.
A recent case in our Supreme Court, widely reported by the media this week, has highlighted the dangers of not finalising financial arrangements at the same time as a divorce goes through. Wyatt v Vince considered a court application for financial help made by the former wife of a man who is now a millionaire. Twenty-odd years after their divorce she finds herself in dire need, and believes he has the resources (in this case his company is worth £57million) and an obligation to assist her. Following the decision, it is now clear that if there is not a court order in place that terminates the obligations of each spouse (or civil partner) to the other, financial claims can potentially validly be made years later. In this case the former wife is living in a former local authority home, is in poor health and dependent on state benefits. After the relationship with Mr Vince broke down the mother later had 2 children by another man who did not support them.
It’s important to note that the Supreme Court was very clear that Ms Wyatt faces an uphill struggle to prove her case. The court has simply accepted that, legally, her case is valid and she should be given the opportunity to argue why Mr Vince should financially assist her so long after they split up. It doesn’t mean she will get a substantial settlement when the case is heard, or even that she will get anything at all. That decision will be for the court to make on the evidence. Nevertheless, the experience has so far been an expensive one for Mr Vince who has been ordered to pay for his former wife’s legal costs to enable her to bring her claim. It is relevant that the couple had a child who is now 30 and who has lived with the father since he was 18. During his childhood it appears the father made very little attempt to provide support for him. Both parents lived on traveller sites and the mother and children were at one stage in a shelter for the homeless.
The circumstances that this former couple have found themselves in since their separation may be extreme, but as a family law solicitor it is not unusual for me to see people enquiring about financial settlements many years after divorce, often where they have found it difficult to cope while their former spouse has come into some wealth. There are many reasons why people don’t get round to sorting out their financial obligations when they get divorced: they may not know that they need to get a separate order from the court about financial matters, they may feel that it is better not to ‘rock the boat’ if they are on good terms with their ex, or they may simply not get round to it. In any event, as we can see from Wyatt v Vince, not tying up the loose ends does leave you susceptible to be tripped up later on.
Tomorrow can seem opaque when you are facing divorce. Nobody knows what the future holds: if you are lucky it may be a lottery win, success in business or a large inheritance, and if you are unlucky it could be poor health, unemployment and housing problems. Collaborative law offers a constructive, cost-effective way of working out financial obligations after divorce and making sure that all the relevant issues are considered and that a formal order is made in which rights to make future capital claims are brought to an end. Specialist collaborative family lawyers do their best to ensure that after your divorce, each of you can go forward with your life and not worry about unexpected future financial claims.