A recent case
The recent high profile case of Wyatt v Vince (2015) has highlighted the possibility of ex-spouses making further financial claims even if many years have passed since their divorce.
Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince were married to each other many years ago. They lived together for about two years before separating and it is now over thirty years since they last lived together. They had one child together. At the time they separated from each other, it is said that they were penniless hippies living in a van. They subsequently divorced. Crucially, at the time of the divorce, no court order was obtained in order to formalise a financial settlement between the two of them.
“From rags to riches”
Following the divorce, Mr Vince prospered massively and became the multi-millionaire founder of Ecotricity. In contrast, Ms Wyatt’s financial circumstances altered very little over the years and she remained impoverished. Earlier this year Ms Wyatt brought a financial claim against Mr Vince even though by then they had been divorced from each other for more than twenty years.
The Court of Appeal subsequently struck out Ms Wyatt’s claim for matrimonial financial provision, considering it an abuse of the courts process due to Ms Wyatt’s considerable delay in bringing her claim. However the Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeal and gave Ms Wyatt permission to pursue her financial claim against Mr Vince.
Difficulties in delaying the claim
In his judgement, Lord Wilson made it clear that Ms Wyatt’s application faces formidable difficulties. He commented that her delay in bringing the case was inordinate. Therefore, whilst Ms Wyatt has now been given permission to pursue her financial claim against Mr Vince, it remains unclear at this time as to whether she will actually be successful in her application and if so, to what extent.
Inevitably the court, when considering Ms Wyatt’s application, will take into account contributions and the fact that Mr Vince has created his considerable wealth some years after the parties had divorced from each other. The case of Wyatt v Vince very much emphasises the need for parties to resolve their financial matters, at the time that they divorce, and to ensure that any financial settlement reached is embodied into a consent order which can then be approved and sealed by the court.
When is it fair to have to share?
In the absence of such a clean break consent order, any spouse runs the risk that many years later, their ex-spouse may seek to make a financial claim against them arising from the marriage. I recently had a similar case whereby in 2013, I was consulted by a wife who had been divorced in 2000 after a marriage lasting some twenty years or so. Although at the time of the divorce an agreement was reached as to what should happen with the former matrimonial home, no consideration was given to sharing pension rights and the financial matters were not resolved by way of a court order.
The husband had worked in the public sector for many years and had pension rights, which were considerably better than those of the wife. Upon retirement, the husband’s pension was worth around £20,000 or so per year more than that of the wife’s. Upon consulting with me in 2013, I confirmed to the wife that she was still entitled to pursue a claim against her husband’s pension and that in all the circumstances, not least the fact that the vast majority of this pension had accrued during the course of their very long marriage, it was highly likely that a court would consider it fair that the husbands pension scheme should be shared between the two of them.
The wife issued court proceedings and following a contested hearing, the court agreed that the wife should have a share of her husband’s pension scheme and awarded her just over one third of this pension.
How to stop an ex-spouse from claiming after divorce
It is extremely important that during a divorce, the parties obtain a court order formalising any financial agreement which has been reached between the two of them, failing which it is open to an ex-spouse, even years after the marriage was dissolved, to bring a financial claim. Without a binding legal agreement, it is clear that there is no time limit on a spouse pursuing a further financial claim against the other.
It would appear that the recovering economy has made such further claims more likely. In 2013, 14,690 people made a post-divorce financial claim. However in 2014, this doubled whereby some 29,060 people made such a claim.
Whilst the temptation during a divorce is for couples to reach their own informal agreement as to how their assets may be divided, not least to keep their costs down, they must bear in mind the risk that failure to resolve financial matters by way of a sealed court order leaves the door open to unexpected financial claims against them in the future.
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