The tide against the concept of ‘maintenance for life’ has turned or so we thought with courts increasingly emphasising the need for the party receiving maintenance to do so only for a short period of time, and aim to become independent. Discussions in the House of Lords have also called for an end to ‘lifelong maintenance’. Against this background, the recent decision of the Court of Appeal in Mills v Mills comes as a bit of a surprise.
Revisiting maintenance, 15 years on
Graham and Maria Mills divorced in 2002 after 13 years of marriage. Maria Mills received a lump sum of £230,000 – which comprised the majority of the couple’s liquid assets – plus monthly maintenance of £1,100. After making a number of poor property investments, she fell in to debt, and went back to the courts to ask for an increase in maintenance payments. In response, her ex-husband asked the court for a ‘clean break’ order to sever the financial ties between them. After the court below refused both requests, the couple went to the Court of Appeal.
Rather than finding in favour of a ‘clean break’, the Court of Appeal found in favour of Maria Mills. The judge who heard the claims in 2016 found that her monthly needs amounted to £1,441 but that the maintenance payments should remain at £1,100 as had previously been agreed. The Court of Appeal found that this was wrong in principle, and that the decision should have been that the maintenance payments increased to the higher amount until a further order of the court. The result is that she will now receive increased maintenance payments.
A decision against the tide towards independence?
As we have already mentioned, this is a surprising result given that the tide in relation to maintenance has been changing in favour of a ‘period of adjustment’ with a view to the divorcing parties attaining independence from each other, and removing the ‘meal ticket for life’ award. Scotland already has a limit on maintenance awards of a maximum of 5 years.
Susi Gillespie, Partner, and family law specialist, comments
“It may well have been in the wife’s favour that she had not recklessly spent the funds she secured at the time of divorce. While her investments were unwise, she did not intentionally squander the money. It may also have been a factor that, as the judgement records, “The husband has and had the ability to make the maintenance payments asked for.” The court had received evidence that Mr Mills’ had previously been able to draw dividends from his business interests of up to £200,000 a year.
I think the outcome of this case highlights the importance of financial needs and underlines that the judiciary very much see marriage, especially where children are involved, as a financial responsibility that continues post-divorce (although in this case, the couple’s son is now grown up). The wife’s needs in this case were found to be her very basic needs. Based on the facts of this case, Mrs Mills was simply not able, per the evidence, to meet the objective of making a transition to independence. However, it is possible that this sort of case will become the exception rather than the norm but it also highlights the risks of litigation. Where possible, separating couples should elect mediation or collaborative law so that they can more easily control the pace and the outcome.”
If you have any questions about maintenance, clean break orders, or any other issues relating to the financial implications of divorce or separation, do get in touch, either by phone 020 3733 1585 or request a call back.