Spousal maintenance and how long should it be paid for

27 February, 2015
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

There has been much interest in the press over the last couple of days, following the Court of Appeal decision in the Wright case.

The somewhat simplistic message coming out of this case, at the current time, is that wives cannot be expected to rely upon pay-outs from their wealthy former husbands indefinitely or beyond his retirement, with the Court of Appeal indicating that those mothers with children over the age of 7 years old should obtain part time work.

The transcript of the judgment has not been published but it does seem that this case, at the very least, signifies a renewed focus by the court on the issue of when wives can be expected to become self-sufficient following their divorce.

It is always helpful to look at the wording of the relevant legislation, in order to make sense of these so called landmark decisions.

The relevant law says that the purpose of spousal maintenance is to enable a wife, following a divorce, to adjust to the termination of her financial dependence upon her husband “without undue hardship”. The court must also consider whether it is appropriate to terminate the financial obligations between the parties as soon as the court feels is reasonable.

Whilst what is known as “joint lives” spousal maintenance (i.e. until one party dies) might once have been fairly common in the London courts we have, in any event, seen a decrease in the number of these orders over the last ten years or so with the court giving considerable scrutiny to the wife’s ability to become self-sufficient and making maintenance orders for limited periods of time, in order to enable her to do so.

What the Wright decision therefore appears to do is reinforce the existing law and crystalizes the trend that we have been seeing over the last ten years or so.

However, where the decision of the Court of Appeal appears to be highly significant is the proposition by the court that the point at which a wife would be expected to be self-sufficient is when the children are aged 7 years old.

This may well have repercussions in not only new cases being determined by the court, but also old cases where the court has previously made a joint lives order with fathers, on the basis of the decision, making applications back to the court for their spousal maintenance orders to be brought to an end at an earlier date.

On the basis of the Wright decision, fathers, who are over the age of 50 and are considering early retirement, may wish to take legal advice as to how the decision may affect them, in the event that they are subject to a joint lives spousal maintenance order.

We will be able to provide more information about this important decision once the transcript is made available but would, in the meantime, be pleased to discuss any queries that you may have.