There has been much comment in the press recently about the case of Wyatt v Vince, where an ex-wife was given permission by the Supreme Court to bring a financial remedy claim against her ex-husband, some 22 years after their divorce.
- The parties married on 18 December 1981.
- At the time of the marriage Ms Wyatt had an almost two year old daughter, Emily, from a previous relationship and the parties had a seven moth old son, Dale. Emily was always treated by Mr Vince as a child of their family.
- The parties chose to live a new age traveller lifestyle and at the time of their marriage neither party had any assets or income.
- The parties separated in 1984. Ms Wyatt moved to live in Lowestoft with the children and was in receipt of state benefits. Mr Vince continued to live a new age traveller lifestyle in Bath for a further 8 years, providing no substantial financial support for the children.
- The parties divorced in 1992, 8 years after their separation. The only document which survives those proceedings in the Decree Absolute, confirming that they divorced on 26 October 1992.
- Ms Wyatt started a new relationship in 1993 and she and her partner had two children. Ms Wyatt continued to live a modest lifestyle.
- In 1995 Mr Vince began a green energy business making wind turbines from recycled materials to produce electricity. His business is now hugely successful and worth many millions of pounds.
The legal issues
The court file relating to the divorce proceedings was mislaid and there is no way of knowing what order – if any – was made in respect of financial matters. Mr Vince’s case is that a clean break order was made dismissing the parties’ respective claims against the other. Ms Wyatt’s case is that there was no order made. The Supreme Court has confirmed that there is no reason to believe that Ms Wyatt’s claims for financial orders were dismissed at the time of the divorce.
On 19 May 2011 Ms Wyatt issued an application for financial remedies against Mr Vince. Mr Vince applied to have Ms Wyatt’s claim struck out on the basis that there were no reasonable grounds for her to bring the application and that the application was an abuse of the court’s process.
On 14 December 2012 Mr Vince’s strike-out application was dismissed in the High Court and he was ordered to pay interim periodical payments in respect of Ms Wyatt’s legal fees, directly to her solicitors. Mr Vince appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal and was successful. The Court of Appeal struck out Ms Wyatt’s application and ordered her to repay part of the money received in respect of her costs.
Ms Wyatt appealed to the Supreme Court who unanimously allowed her appeal. Ms Wyatt was given permission for her application for financial remedy to proceed and the original costs allowance made in the High Court was reinstated.
The Supreme Court found that power for the family court to strike out an application or to give summary judgement to dismiss the application. However, the Supreme Court made it clear to Ms Wyatt that she faces “formidable difficulties” in bringing her claim for financial remedy against Mr Vince, given that:
- They lived together as a married couple for scarcely more than two years.
- Their relationship broke down 31 years ago.
- The standard of living that they enjoyed prior to the breakdown of their relationship could not have been lower.
- Mr Vince did not begin to create his current wealth until 13 years after the relationship breakdown.
- Ms Wyatt has made no contribution, direct or indirect, to the creation of Mr Vince’s wealth.
What does this mean in practice?
Some people are worried that the decision of the Supreme Court in Wyatt v Vince will open the floodgates to ex-spouses bringing financial claims many years after their divorce. Commentators suggest that nearly half of all divorce proceedings are not attended by a final financial order, so there are certainly many ex-spouses out there with claims to be made.
However, two important facts need to be borne in mind when considering this case. First, the facts are highly unusual and secondly, Ms Wyatt has not actually been awarded any provision in her application for financial remedy - she has just been given permission to make her application in the first place. She faces an uphill struggle to achieve what she seeks from Mr Vince.
If an ex-spouse has re-married, this may prevent them being able to make an application, unless they made financial claims against their ex-spouse in the original divorce petition. Some people may be deterred form bringing a claim due to the financial and emotional cost of court proceedings. Others will simply not know enough about their ex-spouse’s financial position to decide whether bringing a claim is worthwhile.
This case highlights the importance of obtaining a financial consent order at the conclusion of divorce proceedings. At present, many people, particularly those who have little or no assets or income, are reluctant to incur the expense of an additional document which they may consider unnecessary. Many people feel that they can trust an informal agreement reached with an ex-spousal that they will go their separate ways from the marriage and make no further claim against the other. This case shows us the risk of an ex-spouse making an application for financial remedy many years after the end of the marriage, by which time the parties’ financial circumstances may have improved significantly.
Divorcing couples must remember to retain copies of any paperwork from the divorce proceedings which may confirm any financial agreement reached. Despite both Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince having legal representation at the time of their divorce in 1992 neither of them retained any documents from their divorce.
Whether this case will open the floodgates for long-forgotten claims remains to be seen. However, It is this writer’s opinion that if there is a flood of such claims they will peter out fairly quickly as judges are likely to place great weight on the delay in the claim being brought following the conclusion of the divorce proceedings. The claiming party must also demonstrate a need for financial provision from their ex-spouse and show that the need has been generated by the relationship.
What needs to be remembered is that however certain you are at the time that you can trust an informal agreement with your ex-spouse that they will not make any claim against you in the future, you MUST have this recorded in writing and embodied into an order of the court. Better safe than sorry!