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Challenging a spousal maintenance order


Q. Following our divorce in 2002, I was ordered to pay spousal maintenance to my former wife on a ‘joint lives’ basis. Our children are now adults and live independently. Will my former wife now be required to find employment and support herself?

A. There has recently been a landmark ruling in the Court of Appeal with regard to spousal maintenance payments. A judge has ruled that a husband’s maintenance payments to his former wife can eventually cease, subject to reducing over a five year period.

Mr Wright, an equine surgeon, separated from his former wife in 2008. The district judge ordered a joint lives order, which required Mr Wright to pay Mrs Wright maintenance until one of them passed away. This figure was put at £33,200 per annum for her personal maintenance, with an extra £20,400 paid for his children.

In 2014 Mr Wright applied to the court for a variation of the order, due to changes in his own financial situation for the worse. This required him to continue working until 65, instead of his initial planned retirement at 60.

Although the case has brought a surge of interest for those having to pay substantial spousal maintenance to former spouses, it is important to note the individual facts of the case.

At first hearing, Mrs Wright was awarded spousal maintenance on the basis that within two to three years she would begin to make provisions to become more financially independent. This included returning to work to the extent that it was compatible with childcare responsibilities.

When the husband sought to vary the order in 2014, it was deemed that the wife had not made sufficient attempts to seek re-employment. To add to the husband’s case, it was held by the Judge that Mrs Wright had a further 16 years to work until retirement age. On the other hand, Mr Wright faced the prospect of retiring in six years and still paying school fees and maintenance, which would have had to be funded from his pension capital.

For these reasons it was decided that the spousal maintenance payments to his former wife be reduced, with a view to extinguishing them in five years. This was to allow Mr Wright to make adequate provisions for his retirement.

It important to acknowledge the particular facts of this case that led to the decision in the Court of Appeal.

When being asked to look at spousal maintenance arrangements again, the courts will look at what was expected of the paying spouse when the order was initially made and how far those requirements have been met.

The court will also look at any significant changes in the circumstances of the former couple, particularly on the paying spouse’s retirement or if they experience a reduction in their income.

For more information on spousal maintenance payments, or any other aspect of family law, please contact Janine Hutson on 01772 258321.

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