Spousal Payments: A Meal Ticket For Life?

Spousal Maintenance is a complex issue which often leads to much debate during financial proceedings on divorce. This is largely due to the oft-cited claim that such maintenance payments – legally known as Periodical Payments – are a “meal ticket for life” by obliging one spouse to maintain the lifestyle of their former spouse for the rest of their life. However, an analysis of legislation and recent cases highlights the courts’ approach is, in reality, not to use Spousal Maintenance as a “meal ticket for life” but rather to use it as a temporary (when possible) safeguard from hardship for the financially weaker spouse until they are able to stand on their own two feet.

What is Spousal Maintenance?

Spousal Maintenance is a payment payable by one spouse to the other to meet their income needs following a divorce. It may become payable when there is a large difference between the incomes of the two spouses and/or one spouse requires additional income, for example due to a disability. Such payments are often made on a monthly basis and for a set period of years or for the remainder of the spouse’s life. However, it is important to note that Spousal Maintenance is not payable in all divorce cases.

Whether, and indeed how much, Spousal Maintenance will be payable depends on numerous factors and is assessed holistically on a case-by-case basis. For example, the length of the marriage, whether each party is working and who is looking after any children of the marriage, amongst a number of other factors. Another key consideration will be the determination of what constitutes the parties’ “reasonable needs”. In determining this, numerous factors will be assessed, particularly how much the parties need to live on, standard of living during the marriage and how these costs can be met from the resources available.

Spousal Maintenance is not a “meal ticket for life”

It is arguable that historically the courts have interpreted what constitutes “reasonable needs” widely, allowing some financially weaker spouses to receive generous Spousal Maintenance payments.  This has contributed to the argument that such maintenance has become a “meal ticket for life”. However, the courts have a duty to try and pursue a “clean break” (terminating all financial ties between the spouses after a divorce) wherever possible.  It should be noted though, a “clean break” can never be achieved in relation to payments for children.

This focus on a “clean break” and therefore a reluctance to provide, or continue to provide, Spousal Maintenance has been reinforced by legislation and reemphasised by significant recent cases. Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which governs Spousal Maintenance, has been amended to state that the court should seek to achieve a clean break on divorce or award Spousal Maintenance only for a set period of time. A recent Private Members’ Bill put forward by Baroness Deech seeks to create a strong presumption in favour of a five-year fixed term as the set period of time.

The case of Wright v Wright in 2015 reemphasises this approach. Here, the wife was a stay-at-home mother and, in 2008, she was awarded significant Spousal Maintenance following divorce. The husband subsequently made a court application for the payments to be reconsidered and varied. He argued that it was unfair for him to support his ex-wife indefinitely whilst she made “no effort whatsoever to seek work”. The court ordered that the payments be reduced and should end after a set period. Importantly, while the court accepted that the wife did not have great earning capacity, they highlighted that she must take some financial responsibility and “just get on with it” and get a job, like “vast numbers of other women with children.” Lord Justice Pitchford, sitting at the Court of Appeal, rejected her challenge to the decision.

Last year’s Supreme Court decision in Mills v Mills can be said to further reinforce the idea that Spousal Maintenance is not a “meal ticket for life”. In this case, the couple divorced after a 15-year marriage. The husband agreed that he would make annual payments to his ex-wife. However, by 2015, the wife had run out of money. She had incurred debts of just over £40,000. She requested the court make an order against her ex-husband for the shortfall. The Supreme Court refused to allow an increase in the wife’s periodical payments, stating it was unfair to expect the husband to meet his ex-wife’s additional financials needs.

What the above highlights then is that, in practice, the courts will be reluctant to order Spousal Maintenance unless absolutely necessary and even then, it will likely be for a temporary period until the financially weaker spouse is able to stand on their own two feet as opposed to providing a “meal ticket for life”.

How Grayfords can help

Spousal Maintenance is an important mechanism which provides a safety net from undue hardship for the financially weaker spouse following a divorce. For example, one spouse may look after the children to the detriment of their career and therefore find it difficult to stand on their own two feet in the immediate absence of the financially stronger spouse. At the same time, as the above demonstrates, it is equally important to ensure Spousal Maintenance is only paid if absolutely necessary to avoid it being an unfair “meal ticket for life”.

It is important to seek independent legal advice as each case will be assessed on its own merits. Grayfords, a renowned firm for divorce, is well-positioned to advise you based on what you are seeking.

This article was written by Megan Bennie and Ishtiaq Shafiq.

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