It can come as a surprise to some people that after a separation, and even after a divorce, the financial claims that married or formally married couples have against each other can remain in place. These claims can lurk in the background, ready to be enforced at a later date.
It's a quirk of the law that a Petitioner's financial claims can remain live indefinitely, whereas the Respondent to a divorce would lose their right to make a claim if he or she remarried.
There has been a case in the papers this year which came as a shock to the public and a surprise to lawyers. The case involved Mrs Wyatt and Mr Vince. They met and married in 1981, when he was 19 and she was 21. Mrs Wyatt already had a child, and another baby was born in 1983. Neither of them were working at the time and they lived a "new age traveler" lifestyle. Their income consisted of state benefits. After just over 2 years of marriage Mrs Wyatt and Mr Vince separated and, much later on, divorced.
In the 1990's Mr Vince, having developed an interest in wind energy, set up a business; Ecotricity. The business is now worth about £57 million. Mrs Wyatt went on to form a new relationship and had two more children, although she did not remarry. Mrs Wyatt had some health difficulties and continued to be on a low income.
In 2011, 27 years after the separation, Mrs Wyatt made an application to the Court for a financial order, on that basis that her financial claims against her ex-husband remained available to her. She was seeking a lump sum and monthly payments to fund her legal fees, which were expected to be in the region of £125,000. Mr Vince applied to the Court to strike out the claim on two grounds, firstly that there was no reasonable grounds to bring the application and secondly that it was an abuse of process do so, after such a length of time. After various appeals, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, who allowed Mrs Wyatt to proceed with her case.
As yet, no decision has been made about what claim, if any, Mrs Wyatt has against her ex-husband. The Court has simply said she is entitled to pursue the action. Her claim is legally recognised – there is no provision for claims to "expire" after a certain amount of time- so it could not be struck out. The Court also said it did not matter if there was little or no prospect of success. The case will now be heard and will ultimately be decided on its specific circumstances.
The Supreme Court did give some indication as to what they considered the merits of the case to be. They said Mrs Wyatt faced "formidable difficulties" particularly when it came to explaining away the delay in bringing the proceedings. As a result of the delay, it was said, "the court will…be likely...to reduce or eliminate…" any provision for Mrs Wyatt.
So, the lesson to be learned from Wyatt v Vince is be sure to resolve the finances at the time of the divorce. This is the only way to provide each party with the certainty that everything has been resolved and a Clean Break has been achieved.
It is also best to be aware that even if financial claims are left outstanding following a divorce, it may not be an easy ride to enforce these later on. The Court has indicated that there will be doubts and suspicions about any delay in bringing proceedings. This would have to be convincingly overcome for the Court to potentially see any merit in a claim. The risk of this would have to be balanced against the cost of pursuing the claim.
At Clapham & Collinge our advice is bespoke, confidential and totally designed around you. For more information, or to find out how we can help, contact our Norwich branch on 01603 693500 or our Sheringham branch on 01263 823398.