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Divorce now, pay later? Unexpected Supreme Court ruling hits the headline

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A ruling in a divorce case at the Supreme Court has caused controversy and led many people to question the fairness of the family justice system.  Five Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled that an ex-wife can go to the family court to claim financial support from her ex-husband who became a millionaire in the 20 years since their divorce.  As the decision hit the headlines, the ex-husband voiced an opinion that many people have supported: “I feel that we all have a right to move on and not be looking over our shoulders.  This could signal open season for people who had brief relationships a quarter of a century ago.”

Dale Vince met Kathleen Wyatt in 1981 and they had a son in 1983 shortly before splitting up, finally divorcing in 1992.  The couple had not been well off and lived on state benefits.  It was only after the divorce that Mr Vince set up his wind power firm which took off and has made him a huge amount to the tune of over £100m.

Kathleen Wyatt is claiming £1.9m but whilst stating that her claim is legally ‘recognisable’, Lord Wilson, giving judgment, also said he thought the amount was ‘out of the question’.

Ms Wyatt says that she struggled to bring up their son in the years following their divorce and she has little in terms of assets. It could be that the court was more sympathetic in this case because a child was involved.  Had the actual divorce taken place today, Ms Wyatt could have been awarded in the region of £50m, far more than the £1.9m Wyatt is claiming, which is less than two per cent of Dale Vince’s worth, standing at £107m. 

Many divorcees have been shocked by the decision and  wondering whether the ghost of marriage past could come back to haunt them  as well .  If they have a Clean Break Consent Order in place then they can rest easy.  If not, however, an ex-spouse could potentially have a claim on their estate.   This is the reason why divorcees should always consider obtaining a  Clean  Break  Consent  Order at the time of the divorce even if there are no assets.  Where there are assets  involved and a couple reach an agreement  amongst themselves they should also always make sure this is embodied in a  legally binding court. This way any future financial claims are dismissed. 

The ruling could have a broader impact, perhaps making cheap online divorces less popular as divorcing couples head to lawyers for more certainty over their futures.  It could also lead to calls for a limitation in terms of the period when people are able to raise new claims, like  the  three year limit in Personal Injury. 

There are no guarantees of success for Kathleen Wyatt if she pursues her claim at the High Court.  She was warned very clearly by Lord Wilson that she had no right to expect ‘an income for life’ at the expense of her former husband, no matter how wealthy he had become. But we shall keep on following this highly unusual case as it trails through the court system.

By divorce solicitor, Victoria Melling

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