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Appeal Court judge tells ex-wife to 'get a job' in maintenance payment dispute

Date:24 FEB 2015
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The ex-wife of a millionaire racehorse surgeon has been told by a judge to 'get a job' saying she has 'no right to be supported for life' at her ex-husband's expense. In a dramatic ruling this Court of Appeal decision is likely to have a significant impact for ex-wives of wealthy husbands. Lord Justice Pitchford said divorcees with children aged over seven should work for a living.

Lord Justice Pitchford rejected a challenge by Tracey Wright to a decision to slash her future maintenance, which she stated would cause 'a plummeting in the standard of living’ of the youngest child. Mrs Wright's ex-husband Ian Wright, a racehorse surgeon in Newmarket, had been ordered to pay £75,000 maintenance and school fees per year (£33,200 was spousal maintenance for Mrs Wright's personal upkeep), in 2008 after 11 years of marriage. Last year Mr Wright went to the High Court to seek a reduction in the payments to Mrs Wright, stating it was not fair that he was expected to support his ex-wife for life, even after his proposed retirement.

Mrs Wright chose not to work after the end of the marriage, and instead be a stay-at-home mum. As part of the divorce, Mrs Wright received a mortgage-free home worth £450,000 and horse stabling for her and the daughters’ horses. Lord Justice Pitchford stated that 'the world of work has innumerable possibilities these days …vast numbers of women with children just get on with it and Mrs Wright should have done the same'. The judge continued to state that 'Mrs Wright has made no effort whatsoever to seek work or to update her skills ... I am satisfied that she has worked on this basis ... that she would be supported for life.'

The judge upheld the decision of the High Court that Mrs Wright's personal maintenance payments must cease, with a gradual tailing off over a 5-year period leading up to Mr Wright's retirement. He continued to state that:

'The question is whether there is a real prospect of establishing that the judge gave inadequate reasons for her decision that the husband should provide no spousal maintenance in his retirement. In my view there is no such prospect.'
This is significant for two reasons. First, historically courts have frequently not heard cases in advance of a change of circumstances - such as retirement - preferring to wait until the time has come. By accepting Mr Wright's application some 6 years before his planned retirement, and accepting his argument that he should start to reduce the support in advance of that date, the Court of Appeal has given a clear signal that planning for an ‘income changing’ event can be prudent.

Secondly, while in most cases which are assessed on the 'needs' of the parties, the ex-spouses are expected to go out to work and pull their weight financially as soon as possible, this case shows that courts are starting to apply this logic to cases involving wealthy couples.

Taken with the recent judgment by Judge Mostyn in the High Court case of SS v NS [2014] EWHC 4183 (Fam) there is a real movement coming from the higher courts that a divorcing spouse cannot realistically expect to have her income needs met by her former husband, for many years after the divorce, particularly where she can reasonably be expected to go out to work, and that the courts will not treat an unwillingness to work as a good enough reason to expect payments to continue longer than is necessary for her needs to be met whilst she re-trains.
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