Supreme Court overturns maintenance decision in Mills v Mills

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The Supreme Court has overturned the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Mills v Mills, a dispute over maintenance arrangements following divorce.

In doing so it upheld the original verdict of the judge in the family court, who had rejected the wife’s application for the husband to pay her more maintenance, as well as the husband’s application for the maintenance arrangement to be reduced, replaced by a single lump sum payment, or brought to a close.

The wife sought an increase in her £13,000 a year payments from the husband, on the grounds that her financial needs had increased since the original settlement in the early 2000s. The husband contended that her change in circumstances was due to a set of unwise financial decisions and an accumulation of debts for which he could not be held responsible, and sought to bring the payments to an end, in line with the court’s duty to consider whether there should be a clean break

The Court of Appeal had decided that the husband should meet the wife’s reasonable income needs, and increased the husband’s maintenance obligations. The Supreme Court has in turn overturned that increase.

So why didn’t the judges in the family court or either of the subsequent hearings allow the husband’s appeal? How does this fit in with previous judgments on open-ended ‘lifetime’ maintenance awards?

Looking just at the headlines, you might think that this ruling contradicts the Court of Appeal’s recent judgment on Waggott vs Waggott, where it ruled that maintenance payments to the wife should be time-limited.

However, as Chris Miller explains in this article, that case turned on its own facts. Mrs Waggott was a millionaire following her divorce. Turning back to today’s judgment, Mrs Mills was nowhere near as wealthy after her settlement was agreed – she received £230,000 in capital to fund a property but also had health issues which reduced her earning capacity.

The judge in the family court therefore decided that the facts of the Mills case merited the continuation of the ex-couple’s existing maintenance arrangement, albeit not at the higher level sought by her. The Supreme Court has now confirmed that it was entitled to make that decision on the basis that the wife required ongoing financial support.

However, she was not awarded maintenance at the increased level she had sought, as it was held that the husband should not be responsible for the wife’s poor financial decisions since the original divorce settlement. The original settlement had provided her with enough capital to buy a suitable property. She had since bought and sold a number of properties and lost all her capital, and was now having to pay rent, which she was asking the husband to pay for.

The husband contended, quite rightly, that he was being asked to fund her housing costs twice over, once by way of the original £230,000 capital settlement, and now by an increased maintenance arrangement to cover rent. The family court and then the Supreme Court agreed with him, and disallowed the wife’s application.

This case is also notable in that it is a rare example of a case with limited assets appearing in the Supreme Court. That it did so highlights the importance for separating couples of negotiating a clean break in finances if at all possible, in order to prevent future costly legal disputes down the line.

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