This is a cautionary tale for all those couples that divorced some years ago and never went on to get a financial Order, DISMISSING each other’s claims.
Often there are various reasons why divorcing spouses do not want to have a financial agreement. Often the spouse cannot be traced, or it is simply a question of money. When the parties have got no money, there seems to be little point in spending any more money just to dot the ‘i’s’ and cross the ‘t’s’.
A financial Order in divorce can dismiss each parties claims against the other. This means neither can come back in the future to make a claim. Often a solicitor will say it is unlikely anybody will come back unless they win the lottery, but the case of Wyatt and Vince which has just been heard by the Supreme Court, is a cautionary tale.
Miss Wyatt and Mr Vince
Mr Vince did not win the lottery. However, he graduated from becoming a new age traveller to being the sole Shareholder of a Limited Company which provided green electricity to 70,000 homes and businesses in the UK. From starting life on State Benefits, living in bedsits and on traveller sites, living an itinerant existence, Mr Vince is now the owner of a substantial company and lives in a Georgian Hill Fort with his second wife. His company alone is worth £57million pounds.
Naturally, his first ex-wife, who still has a very modest and challenging existence, saw an opportunity to make a claim against her ex-husband’s significant wealth, because when they divorced in 1992, neither party appeared to finalise the proceedings by obtaining a financial Order which would have dismissed the other’s claims against them. Mr Vince thought there may have been an Order, but there was no Court documentation or Order to confirm the same and the Court of Appeal found it more likely that there was no Order made.
The Particular Circumstances
Before we look at the lessons to be learned, this is such an interesting life story that it is well worthwhile looking at the particular circumstances.
The Applicant (the ex-wife) met Mr Vince when she was just aged 21 and he was 19. She had a child (then aged two), and she moved in with Mr Vince. She enrolled on a Degree Course at a Polytechnic, but abandoned it, she says, at the request of Mr Vince. They married in 1981 and lived on State Benefits. In 1982 she became pregnant with her second child, and in 1983 their son Dane, was born. Sadly, in 1984, Mr Vince moved into a bedsit room elsewhere in the town, and their marital cohabitation then came to an end. It had lasted for just over two years.
Mr Vince then started his life as a traveller and that lasted for about eight years. During this time, their son spent some of the time with his father on the road. From 1985 -1995 the life of Miss Wyatt and her children was very unsettled. When she moved with the children to Durham in 1988 and enrolled on a course at Durham University, she maintained that she had to withdraw from it because of lack of support from Mr Vince. There was some form of reconciliation in 1989 when they attended the Glastonbury Festival and there is a period of time when Miss Wyatt and the children moved to live on a travelling site that Mr Vince was then living on with his partner. The wife and children appear to have lived from hand to mouth. In 1992, Miss Wyatt met the father of the two children she was to have subsequently.
In 1991 there were legal proceedings because of issues about where the children should live and in early 1992 Miss Wyatt issued a petition for divorce. Decree Absolute was granted on 26 October 1992. Mr Vince thinks that there was a financial Order dismissing claims. However, there was no Court Order that confirmed this - in fact the whole Court file had been lost. The Court of Appeal considered it likely that no financial Order was made. Miss Wyatt said that there was no Order made and therefore each parties claims, technically, were still live.
It was virtually common ground between the two parties that Mr Vince did not provide his wife with any substantial payment of maintenance for either of the children and she struggled to maintain a home for them. It was in the mid ‘90’s that Mr Vince started to develop his Wind Turbine business and in 1997 his company was generating a substantial net pre-tax profit. It was only in the final years of his son’s minority that he was in a position to pay substantial maintenance for him.
The Current Position
Miss Wyatt went back to Court to ask for permission to pursue her application for financial relief. Mr Vince said that that application should be refused as there were no reasonable grounds for it to be successful and it was an abuse of the Court’s process (because of the length of time, as they had effectively parted company 23 years ago). The matter went to the Court of Appeal and ultimately, the Supreme Court where judgment was given on 11 March 2015.
The Supreme Court found:
- The family rules require the Court to give effect to the over-riding objective. The over-riding objective is to deal with the case justly. That includes dealing with it in ways proportionate to the issues and allotting it in appropriate share of the Court’s resources. The Court found that to comply with this requirement it would be essential to conduct a provisional valuation of the issues.
- The Court found that the wife’s application does face considerable difficulties; they barely lived together for two years, their marriage broke down 31 years ago and all the wealth that has been created was 13 years after the breakdown and the wife made no contribution to it at all. The Court accepted that there would always be some hostility to significant delay even though the law allows the Court to make a financial Order at the time of decree or any time afterwards.
- Nevertheless, Miss Wyatt relied on her care of her child from 1985 to 2001, their care of Emily and the absence of any significant financial contribution by Mr Vince during these years. The Court found these were powerful arguments in favour of the wife.
Therefore, the Supreme Court has allowed the application, and the Court will go on to consider the application substantively.
There is no doubt that Miss Wyatt has got a lot to prove in terms of significant delay, and the other factors set out. However, realistically speaking and taking into account her present circumstances, who would bet that the Court is not going to make any Order in her favour? Not me.
The Lesson to be Learned
- The first lesson to be learned is that delay is not a bar to coming back to ask the Court to make a financial Order after divorce.
- The application is likely to be stronger if there were dependent children, and if as in this case, there was significant hardship, juxtaposed against considerable wealth – as in the case of Mr Vince.
- The Court will always exercise its discretion in such cases, and if its over-riding objective is to deal with matters fairly, and s.25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act requires the Court to consider the contribution the parties have made to the welfare of the family, including looking after the home and caring for the children, there is always going to be a potential argument where children are involved, that such consideration should be given.
What should you do to avoid future claims?
- Even if it feels inappropriate to spend more money on legal costs, get your financial Order. It will provide you with certainty.
- Make sure you keep a copy of it. Courts can lose papers and there is no guarantee that in 30 years’ time you are going to be able to locate the document. Keep it in a safe place with your Wills or your other important documents so it defines the financial obligations between the parties.
- Make provision for the unexpected. It is not only winning the lottery, but other ways of coming into significant wealth, which could make the prospect of such an application more likely.
If you would like any advice or are concerned about your own personal circumstances after reading this article please contact a member of our Family Team on 01279 755777.