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Should anyone get a meal ticket for life when they divorce?

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Graham and Maria Mills divorce case reinforces need for clean break.

“The inequality in divorce law laid bare”. The recent case of Graham and Maria Mills, decided by the Court of Appeal, has sparked widespread outrage, as Mrs Mills’ maintenance, first set when the couple divorced 15 years ago, was increased by almost a third. The court decided that she should be financially supported for life, despite having received virtually all the couple’s available capital when they first divorced.

Family lawyers have been getting used to a trend away from imposing substantial and long term maintenance orders in financial cases. For some time the reported cases we have seen have shown a tendency for a court to see spousal maintenance as a temporary measure only. Wives have been loudly encouraged to get jobs and to seek financial independence as soon as they can.

So, what was the Court of Appeal thinking? Is this perhaps the start of a change in approach to these cases?

Certainly, many readers of articles about the case have expressed horror at the outcome. Mrs Mills has been portrayed as lazy, a gold digger and Mr Mills as the victim of a female focussed, biased and outdated legal system. There’s been a stream of comments on Twitter including solicitors Tony Roe saying “Husband Graham Mills handed wife Maria all cash in 15 yr old divorce must up maintenance after she blows the lot” and the Sunday Times commenting “Inequality in divorce law has been laid bare in the case of Maria and Graham Mills”.

Is there more to this case?

A closer reading of the information available does however show up some interesting features. Mrs Mills has apparently suffered from ill-health since before the time of the divorce which impacts on her ability to work. She does work part-time but can’t do any more. Mr Mills kept the couple’s prosperous business as his part of the settlement, and this has continued to provide a good level of income, more than Mrs Mills was ever likely to earn on her own (although he has undoubtedly had to work hard to generate this).

Perhaps most interestingly, this application was not brought by Mrs Mills with her hand out expecting more. On the contrary it was started by Mr Mills who wanted to be released from having to pay the lower amount originally agreed, and was trying to stop paying any maintenance at all.

The importance of a clean break 

The fact is, whoever brings an application to vary or change a maintenance order, it may be a case of “be careful what you wish for”. Mr Mills hoped to be let off making any further payments, but ended up having to pay more and for longer.

The key message has to be: unless you have a clean break order, where all claims for maintenance are dismissed, then the potential is there for either side to try and change the original sum, possibly years in the future. Getting proper legal advice about whether you could be vulnerable to this is really important, we’ve certainly seen an increase in enquiries from husbands since this case hit the headlines.

Kate Butler
Divorce & Family lawyer Northampton

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