The recent case of Wyatt v Vince has made front page news with what has been described by many as a “ground-breaking judgment” from the Supreme Court. A wife, some 19 years after decree absolute, brought what is now a successful claim for financial provision against her ex-husband. But sensationalism aside, will this open to the floodgate to other such claims? And what can couples divorcing at the moment learn from this? In this Keynote article Claire O’Flinn takes a look at the high profile case.
Kathleen Wyatt and Dale Vince married in 1981 and separated a few years later (although it was disputed between them when they actually separated), with the divorce being finalised in 1992. During their relationship and marriage neither of them had any assets but following the divorce the “new age traveller” Mr Vince founded Ecotricity, one of the country’s leading energy companies and established a multi-million pound wealth. Ms Wyatt was not as lucky, she brought up their son on no wealth at all, tending to be in either low paid employment or having to rely on state benefits. Both subsequently remarried and had children. It wasn’t until 2010 when Ecotricity was very successful did Ms Wyatt launch her financial claim with the court seeking a settlement of £1.9million.
The case has a long and turbulent history. Ms Wyatt’s legal proceedings were launched seeking a lump sum payment and assistance with her legal costs. Mr Vince countered this by asking the court to “strike out” her claim on the basis that it was an “abuse of the court’s process”. A judge ruled against Mr Vince in 2012 and dismissed his application, ordering him to pay Ms Wyatt’s a “fighting fund” for legal costs. He appealed and that decision was revered by the Court of Appeal and she was ordered to repay funds. Ms Wyatt then took the appeal to the Supreme Court who has reversed the decision for a second time.
They summarised the key facts in this case to be:
(a) The marital cohabitation subsisted scarcely more than two years.
(b) It broke down 31 years ago.
(c) The standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower.
(d) Mr Vince did not begin to create his fortune until 13 years after the breakdown of the marriage
(e) Ms Wyatt has made no contribution, direct or indirect, to its creation
What does the ruling mean?
This judgment highlights that, unlike other areas of law, there is no limitation period in which to bring a claim, “there is no time-limit for seeking order for financial provision or property adjustment for the benefit of a spouse following divorce”. Therefore, even if you are divorced, a former spouse may seek to claim financial provision from the other unless and until there is a court order dismissing those claims. Essentially, if following a divorce there was not a court order making it clear that neither can look to the other for money ever again, and if one party wins the lottery or makes their fortune from their own hard efforts they are exposed to a claim.
The Supreme Court has sent the case back to the Family Division of the High Court to rejoin the usual process but the Supreme Court has make it clear that Ms Wyatt’s application “faces formidable difficulties” and that she would most likely only be entitled to a “modest” award. This must be cold comfort to Mr Vince.
On one level, this case is so unusual and so fact specific that other than being of human interest, it carries no weight at all. Pioneers such as Mr Vince are few and far between, right? Yes, but entrepreneurs are not. Entrepreneurs who take a gamble which pays off handsomely in years to come may now be stung if they did not tie up the loose ends of the marriage at the time.
And with the demise of Legal Aid the courts are now awash with litigants in person not to mention the raft of divorcing couples who are “doing it themselves” to save money. In fact, it could be costing money in the long run, if a consent order dismissing all future financial claims is not entered into with legal advice and approved by the court.
Equally, this case may allow (usually) ex- wives to pursue ex-husbands who walked away with little or nothing and have struggled while the husbands has gone on to make his riches.
Affected by a similar situation?
All divorcing couples should have a consent order to protect from future claims. All divorcing couples should revise their Will once their decree absolute is pronounced. Everyone should keep not only the original of the decree absolute but also keep certified copies in case the original is misplaced or lost. These are just a few basic pieces of advice that a “DIY” kit from the high street or internet may not tell you. A meeting with a family law specialist can advise and guide you through the end of a relationship and can help protect you against future financial pitfalls. This case is extraordinary and yet thousands of divorcing couples probably make the same mistake each year.
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.