The Supreme Court’s ruling in the recent case of Wyatt v Vince UKSC 15 has opened the door for financial claims against former spouses. Ms Wyatt’s appeal was allowed by the court because at the time of divorcing ex-husband Mr Vince, over 22 years ago, no financial order was made to formally dismiss their financial claims against each other.
The couple married in 1981 and lived a modest lifestyle with their son and Ms Wyatt’s daughter from a previous relationship, until they separated in 1984. After separation, Ms Wyatt brought up the children and Mr Vince was unable to afford any financial contribution to the family. Their divorce was finalised in 1992.
Mr Vince subsequently formed a green energy company, Ecotricity Group Ltd, in 1995. He is now the sole shareholder of the company which is worth over £57m.
Ms Wyatt filed her financial claim in 2011 which saw Mr Vince apply to strike out her claims for being made out of time. Ms Wyatt’s claim was allowed in the first instance in December 2012, but the Court of Appeal overruled this decision upon Mr Vince’s appeal in 2013.
Ms Wyatt’s subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court was based on the fact that her financial claims had been left open after their divorce. She claimed a fund of £1.9m would be required to satisfy the housing need for her and her family, and for maintenance given severe limitations to her ability to work caused by poor health.
Ms Wyatt had lived in extreme hardship for many years. Her house was in a poor state of repair with inadequate heating, hot water and severe damp. She claimed she was entitled to an award and asked the court to consider section 25(2)(f) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 which states that the court should have regard to “the contributions which each of the parties has made … to the welfare of the family, including any contribution by looking after the home or caring for the family”.
Ms Wyatt relied upon her care of the children for 16 years after separation until adulthood without any significant contribution from Mr Vince. She also relied upon the conditions of poverty in which she lived during this time. The Supreme Court was satisfied that her financial claims should not be struck out without consideration, and overturned the Court of Appeal decision.
The scale of the financial award remains to be seen but Ms Wyatt is likely to receive significantly less than the £1.9m sought, a sum that was described as “out of the question” by the court.
The decision highlights the necessity of obtaining a court order which deals with or dismisses a couple’s respective financial claims upon divorce, which did not happen in this case. Obtaining the Decree Absolute which formalises the divorce is not enough and could leave either party vulnerable to being subject to financial claims a long time in the future, when their financial circumstances may have changed significantly. Although this case is highly unusual, given the vast fortune amassed by Mr Vince after divorce and the difficulties experienced by Ms Wyatt when raising the children, it shows that the passing of time will not bar financial claims following a divorce and it potentially opens the gates for more claims from historic divorces.
Fiona Read and Oscar Smith