There has recently been a lot of sensational reporting, in the tabloids, regarding the judgement made by Lord Justice Pitchford in the case of Wright v Wright (2015). It was widely reported that the judge in this case told the ex-wife that she should go back to work and earn her own living, rather than relying upon her ex-husband to financially support her. Has this judgement though actually changed the law regarding the payment of spousal maintenance and does it mean ex-husbands, who are still paying maintenance to their ex-wives, can force them to now go back to work instead?
The facts of the case are as follows.
The agreement at the time of divorce
Mrs Wright (now aged 51) and Mr Wright (now aged 59) were married for 9 years. They had two children now aged 10 and 16. They divorced in 2008. Mr Wright was a very successful race horse surgeon. Mrs Wright had worked prior to the marriage as a legal secretary and administrator but had left work in order to care for the children. At the time of the divorce, the Court ordered that Mr Wright should pay maintenance to Mrs Wright in the sum of £33,200 per year and that these payments were to continue until the death of either one of the parties or until Mrs Wright’s remarriage or further Court order. Mr Wright was also ordered to pay child maintenance of £10,400 per child each year and to pay for their private school fees.
Request for changes after the divorce
In 2012 Mr Wright applied for the spousal maintenance to be varied downwards on the basis that his financial circumstances had deteriorated since the order was first made and due to Mrs Wright failure to seek a job and make a contribution towards her own expenditure. The final hearing took place in 2014 when Her Honour Judge Roberts decided that the spousal maintenance order should be varied downwards over a six year period, with the maintenance ending all together at the end of 2019.
This judgement was made on the basis that Mrs Wright should use and improve her own earning capacity as she gains experience by training and as her childcare responsibilities reduce, whereby eventually she will be able to meet all of her needs herself, without having to rely upon financial support from Mr Wright.
The Judge’s ruling
Mrs Wright appealed to the Court of Appeal. However her appeal was dismissed with Lord Justice Pitchford commenting that wives with children aged 7 or older should “just get on with it” and go back to work like many other women with children.
Is this a “landmark” case, as the press have suggested, with spousal maintenance no longer being a meal ticket for life? Most legal commentators do not think so.
There have been a number of cases in recent years whereby the Courts approach has been to try to terminate spousal maintenance at the earliest opportunity. Indeed as long ago as 1973, Parliament decreed, in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, that there shall be a financial clean break immediately between married couples, should this be possible. Each case is of course specific to its own facts. However Wright v Wright is yet another example of how the Courts, in recent years, have made it clear that a joint lives spousal maintenance order no longer guarantees an income for life and that a clean break should be achieved wherever possible, whether straight away or at some point in the future.
Wright v Wright is by no means a unique case. Mr Wright was nearing retirement and needed to prepare for this financially. He was concerned that once he retired the maintenance payments would be unaffordable. It has always been the case that spousal maintenance payments are subject to variation in light of a change in the circumstances of either the payor and/or the payee and in particular, many such orders are reviewed as the paying party approaches retirement, if not before. Likewise there has been a duty on the Court, for some 40 years or so, to consider a clean break wherever possible.
The case of Wright v Wright was highly publicised due to the comments made by Lord Justice Pitchford. This case is not authority to say that wives with children aged 7 or over must go back to work and have no entitlement to spousal maintenance. The Court will continue to consider each case on its own facts and merits, with the Court expecting parties to be financially independent of each other at the earliest possible opportunity. In some cases though this may simply not be possible.
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