No More Meal Tickets For Life: Divorce Case Study

Recent news reports have highlighted the case of Mrs Tracey Wright, the ex-wife of a wealthy racehorse surgeon who has been told that she has no right to be supported for life (i.e. to have a “meal ticket”) and that she should get a job.

The Facts of the Divorce Case 

Mr and Mrs Wright separated in 2006 and divorced in 2008 after 11 years of marriage. Mr Wright is a millionaire racehorse surgeon. The £1.3 million family home was sold and Mrs Wright received £450,000 to purchase a new home, mortgage free, in Newmarket. She was also provided with stabling for her own and her daughters’ horses and ponies. Mr Wright was ordered to pay his ex-wife maintenance totalling £75,000 per annum and school fees. £33,200 per annum of the maintenance figure was assessed to be for Mrs Wright’s personal needs. We have yet to receive the full Court report but it is understood that the maintenance payments were to continue indefinitely. Therefore, they would only cease on the death of either Mr or Mrs Wright, if Mrs Wright remarried or if a subsequent Court order terminated the payments.

Mr Wright applied to the Court last year for a reduction in the maintenance and an order for the payments to cease by the time he retired. He was then 59 years of age. He said it was unfair to expect him to support his ex-wife indefinitely, especially when he retired, when she had made no effort whatsoever to find work. Mrs Wright’s daughters were then aged 16 years (and at boarding school) and aged 10 years.

The High Court’s Decision

At the High Court hearing last year, the Judge was sympathetic to Mr Wright’s position. She told Mrs Wright that she must “just get on with it” and find a job like “vast numbers of other women with children”. The Judge said there was no good reason why Mrs Wright had not undertaken some paid work since the divorce and stated, “I do not think the children would suffer if Mrs Wright has to work and indeed a working mother at this stage of their lives may well provide them with a good role model. It is possible to find work that fits in with childcare responsibilities. I reject her other reasons relating to responsibilities for animals, or trees, or housekeeping.”

The Judge therefore ordered a reduction in maintenance payments with them reducing over a five-year period leading up to Mr Wright’s retirement when they ceased. Mrs Wright appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal rejected Mrs Wright’s challenge. Lord Justice Pitchford said that it was imperative that Mrs Wright went out to work and supported herself. At the time of his retirement, Mr Wright should not be paying her spousal maintenance. Interestingly, Lord Justice Pitchford went on to say, “There is a general expectation that once children are in year two, mothers can begin part-time work and make a financial contribution.”

Does This Case Change Divorce Law?

The law has not changed, but it is a decision which strengthens the trend of judges saying that wives should work once any children of the family are no longer very young and, further, that ex-wives cannot be expected to be supported by their ex-husbands indefinitely.

The law has stated for many years that the Courts in divorce cases should try and ensure that there are no financial ties between divorced couples as soon as possible after the divorce. This has meant that maintenance orders would often be for a finite term often relating to a time when any children reach the ages of 16 or 18 years and no longer require significant care from the residential parent (who is often the wife).

In many divorce cases, there is no maintenance payable by one spouse to the other because their income positions are similar or money is not available to meet any maintenance payments. The cases where a wife has been granted maintenance indefinitely or “the meal ticket” for life, have been restricted to the ex-wives of wealthy men, e.g. footballers, well-paid City professionals or successful businessmen. This decision is most likely to reduce the level of payments made and the period over which they are to be paid. It may also lead to husbands who are currently paying such orders considering whether they should apply for a reduction in the level of the payments and/or for them to cease in the not too distant future, especially if they may then be retired.

What Will the Decision Mean for Most Couples who are Divorced?

The decision will add weight to arguments for a wife to be working or increasing her earning capacity as soon as possible, with maintenance payments being limited or reducing so that they cease as soon as possible and certainly by the time of a husband’s retirement, assuming he is the payer. The Court of Appeal’s indication that wives could be working, at least part-time, by the time youngest child is seven years of age, is certainly likely to be referred to in many cases.

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