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Spousal maintenance post-divorce no longer a meal-ticket for life

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A recent decision in the family courts may well have a significant bearing on future big money divorce cases.

Lord Justice Pritchard has told a mother-of-two that divorcees with children over 7 years of age should work for a living. The facts of the case are as follows:

Tracey Wright a former riding instructor lives with her daughter (aged 10), and chose not to work when she and her then husband, Ian, divorced in 2008 after 11 years of marriage. In the divorce settlement, Mrs Wright got a £450,000 house (mortgage-free), plus stabling for horses, following an order to sell the matrimonial home. Mr Wright was also ordered to pay £75,000p.a. in spousal maintenance and school fees.

In 2014, Mr Wright returned to the High Court seeking a reduction in the annual maintenance bill, arguing it was unfair to expect him to support his ex-wife indefinitely, even post retirement, while she made no effort whatsoever to seek employment. The judge agreed that there was no good reason why Mrs Wright had not done paid work since the divorce and criticised her for being “evasive” on her earning capacity.

That decision has been upheld on appeal with the judge ordering that Mrs Wright’s personal maintenance payments must cease, with a tailing-off over a five-year period leading up to Mr Wright’s retirement. Upholding Judge Roberts’s earlier ruling, Lord Justice Pitchford confirmed that it is now “imperative that the wife go out to work and support herself, the time had come to recognise that, at the time of his retirement, the husband should not be paying spousal maintenance.”

The decision in some ways reflects the greater equality that exists in relationships relating to both family and working lives. In the vast majority of cases both husband and wife contribute jointly to running a household and both also contribute financially. In many cases the wife returns to work after a period of time raising children. The expectation that a wife can use the circumstances of divorce to become a stay at home mum appears unrealistic following these developments.