Is there a time limit for financial claims after a divorce?

The recent case of Wyatt v Vince [2015] UKSC 15 has answered quite unequivocally: no.

On 11th March 2015, the Supreme Court handed down judgement with regard to a wife's claim for financial reward from her husband, from whom she had been divorced in 1992.

They were married in 1981 and to make things harder for the husband to bear he says that they had only lived together for 3 of those 11 years of marriage, having separated in 1984.

At the time of the divorce in 1992, and indeed throughout the marriage, the pair were virtually penniless, living a new age traveller lifestyle. Crucially to this case however, they had one child together and another child of the wife who was treated as a child of the family.

Following the divorce and during the separation the wife says that the husband made little or no contribution to the upkeep of the children and that she was forced to bring them up on her own, relying on state benefits and a very poor standard of living.

In 1996 the husband started a wind farming business which was phenomenally successful, resulting in the husband having a net worth today of approximately £100 million.

In 2011, nearly 20 years after the divorce, the wife made an application for financial relief against the husband. One of her main arguments was that she was left to bring up the children of the marriage and so she should be afforded the right to make a claim against her then husband and the father of the children.

To compound matters, virtually all court documents relating to the case from 1992 had been lost or destroyed and so the only document left was the decree absolute. The husband says that an earlier financial claim by his wife had been dismissed, but this was denied by the wife and not accepted by the court.

The case has been heavily litigated through a number of court proceedings. The husband's solicitors had successfully applied to the Court of Appeal that the case should be struck out, based on an argument regarding the unlikely prospect of success for the wife and also as an abuse of the court process. This is a useful tool in civil litigation cases, which the husband's solicitors argued should apply to family law cases.

However, on 11th March the Supreme Court, which is the highest appeal court in the country, decided that the wife's claim should be allowed to continue and that there is no reciprocal strike out function in family law.

The case has now been sent for another hearing, known as a Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) at which the two sides will have the opportunity of trying to settle the case. It is worth noting that there is still no guarantee that the wife will win her claim against her former husband and that no final decision about figures or awards has yet been made. It has also been said at the Supreme Court that her claim for £1.9 million is out of the question and based on questionable forensic wisdom.

The cautionary tale in this story is that anyone who is going through a divorce should think hard and long about whether or not they should conclude their financial claims against each other. This is termed as a clean break and provides that neither party will have any financial claims against the other, either now or in the future. So even if you now do not have any money, property, pension, investments etc., one day you just might start a multi-million pound business and have your former spouse make a financial claim against you.

To make matters worse for the husband, he also has been ordered to pay his former wife legal costs of £125,000 to fund her application.

For a free, initial consultation on a divorce or divorce finance-related matter, please contact our Family Law team on 0113 201 4900.

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