It’s perfectly possible to get divorced – obtain a decree absolute so that your marriage is legally dissolved – without also getting a financial order from the court. It’s an approach however that we would caution against in the strongest possible terms.
As we’ll see below from the important case of Vince v Wyatt (2015), failure to make a clean financial break at the time of divorce can leave the door wide open for one spouse to make a financial claim against a former spouse long after the decree absolute. (In Vince v Wyatt the claim was made 19 years after the divorce when the husband’s finances had immeasurably improved.)
Vince v Wyatt: What Happened?
Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince married in 1981 and divorced in 1992. By 1992 they had already been living separately for several years so it was a relatively short union. At the time of the divorce they had little in the way of income or capital and did not attempt to reach any kind of financial settlement.
After the divorce, Mr Vince’s business career began to take off. He founded “Ecotricity”, an eco energy company that grew exponentially over the next two decades. By 2015 the company was reported to be worth an estimated £57 million. During this period Mr Vince remarried.
Almost two decades after her divorce, and in the absence of any financial agreement, Ms Wyatt initiated a claim for financial remedy. Her ability to make a claim after so long was challenged and her application to do so made it all the way to the Supreme Court. There a ruling was made enabling Ms Wyatt in principle to make a financial claim against her husband – despite the huge delay.
The case then went back to the High Court where Ms Wyatt sought a lump sum of £1.9 million – an amount that, in the words of the judge Mr Justice Cobb was ‘out of the question’. Ultimately Ms Wyatt agreed to accept a sum of £300,000 (including an amount for her legal costs) to settle the case.
The Importance Of Finality
There’s no doubt Vince v Wyatt was a case with a highly unusual set of facts. Understandably when the case reached its conclusion there was a great deal of media attention. The principle it established is certainly of interest to divorce lawyers.
At the time of the High Court award (June 2016) there was a view that the case would open the floodgates to similar financial claims long after a final decree of divorce. Mr Vince himself expressed his frustration saying:
I feel that we all have a right to move on and not be looking over our shoulders. This could signal open season for people who had brief relationships a quarter of a century ago…it’s mad in my opinion.
In reality claims like the one made by Ms Wyatt continue to be relatively rare. Firstly some form of financial consent order is usually arrived at during the divorce process that offers a clean break to divorcing couples. Secondly, it’s true that the Supreme Court ruling enabled Ms Wyatt to go back to the High Court to make her financial claim. But as it did so the Supreme Court made it clear that she faced ‘formidable difficulties’ in succeeding, partly because of the near 20- year delay in making her claim. The court highlighted:
- Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince lived together as a married couple for only about two years
- The relationship broke down 31 years before Ms Wyatt’s claim
- The standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower
- The husband did not begin to create his current wealth until 13 years after the breakdown
- The wife has made no contribution, direct or indirect, to the creation of the husband’s wealth
In the end the agreement reached between the parties was, in the words of Mr Justice Cobb, ‘a reasonable, realistic and balanced appraisal of the unusual circumstances of the case.
So, while the threat of a financial claim can exist if no financial order is made at the time of the divorce, the success of such a claim is by no means guaranteed and will depend very much in the facts of the case.
At Brookman we have extensive experience in dealing with all aspects of financial settlements during divorce. To discuss how we can assist you please call us on 44 (0) 20 7430 8470 or contact us online. We provide a free, initial consultation.