There was a great deal of publicity in 2013 regarding the case of Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt, which saw a wife bring a financial claim against her former husband 27 years after they separated. That case has now reached its conclusion and many people may find the result surprising.
Mr Vince and Ms Wyatt married in 1981. Ms Wyatt had a younger daughter from a previous relationship, and the parties had a son together. They separated in 1984. For 8 years Mr Vince lived a “new age travelling” lifestyle and was unable to contribute financially towards the upbringing of the children. In 1992 Ms Wyatt started another relationship, and she petitioned for divorce. The Decree Absolute was granted that year, thereby ending the marriage. The parties did not reach an agreement in respect of the finances and Ms Wyatt did not bring a financial claim through the court. In the mid-1990s Mr Vince started to build up a renewable energy business which developed into a phenomenally successful business, worth around £57 million. By contrast, Ms Wyatt was living in an ex-local authority house and was in receipt of state benefits.
Ms Wyatt applied to the court for a ‘financial remedy’, namely a lump sum or capital payment. She sought £550,000 for a home and £1.35 million in capitalised ‘maintenance’ or ‘alimony’.
Mr Vince applied initially for her claim to be struck out because of the lapse of time. This was refused by the first court and accordingly he appealed. The Court of Appeal agreed with Mr Vince and so Ms Wyatt appealed to the Supreme Court.
Decision of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court allowed Ms Wyatt’s appeal and found that her application should proceed, as a delay in itself did not mean that a claim could not be made. The Supreme Court did, however, warn that due to the lapse of time Ms Wyatt would face ‘formidable difficulties’. The Court considered that Ms Wyatt’s claim may not be successful because it had been a very short marriage, with the parties living together for less than 2 years. The marriage had broken down 31 years ago by the time her claim was bought and Mr Vince had not begun to create his wealth until 13 years after separation. Ms Wyatt had made no contribution to Mr Vince’s wealth, and the standard of living during the marriage was very low and so her claim was unrealistic.
There was a court hearing in October 2015 and the parties reached an agreement that Mr Vince would pay Ms Wyatt £300,000 and that she would retain the money he had paid as a contribution towards her legal costs.
Many people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, may be surprised that Mr Vince was liable to pay Ms Wyatt anything at all. It is a common misconception among divorcing or separating couples that a financial claim can only be brought at the time of the divorce. This example shows that this is not the case, and couples who do not address financial issues at the time of the divorce could find themselves facing a claim even many years later.
Of course the facts of this case were exceptional, but it is important for couples to think about the future when ending their marriage or civil partnership. The way to prevent claims being brought many years later is to ensure that matters are dealt with officially and sanctioned by the Court by way of Court Order on divorce/ dissolution. Even if the parties do not intend to bring a claim against the other, they are advised to enter into a ‘clean break’ order to dismiss both parties’ claims against the other. Even if one party does not want to make a claim at the time of the separation, perhaps because there are limited assets, like Ms Wyatt their opinion may change at a later stage if their former spouse or civil partner becomes very wealthy after separation!
It is not to say that a claim brought many years later will necessarily be successful, and certainly the award is likely to be lower than if the claim had been brought at the time of divorce / dissolution but every case will depend on its own facts and the circumstances of the parties.
When facing marital or civil partnership breakdown or separation, it is advisable to seek legal advice at an early stage from experienced solicitors who can advise on whether financial settlements, even if it appears that neither party wants to make a claim. A lawyer or solicitor can help to identify the risks, both current and future, and advise on how best to protect against those risks to avoid nasty surprises in the future.