Q: I was divorced 20 years ago can I make a financial claim against my ex? The Wyatt v Vince trap (or opportunity!)
An informal survey at my previous firm I revealed that even qualified solicitors did not appreciate that a divorce does not automatically end financial obligations between a husband and wife.
The danger with many on-line divorce services or DIY divorces is that a couple may think they are divorced but find that as there has been no divorce court financial order that financial claims can still be made.
This has been highlighted by the case of Wyatt v Vince  EWHC1368 (FAM) This case first came to the attention of the public when it went to the Supreme Court in Wyatt v Vince  UKSC14. The parties married in 1981 and had one child. The parties separated in 1984 and divorced in 1992. It was not until some 19 years later that Ms Wyatt applied for financial provision in the divorce proceedings. Meanwhile, Mr Vince had become an incredibly successful green energy tycoon and was worth £57m at the time of the Supreme Court hearing. By way of contrast
Ms Wyatt lived in a former local authority home in Monmouth. Also living with her were her daughter whom she had prior to her marriage to Mr Vince now an adult and her younger children who were aged 21 and 18 at the time of the Supreme Court case. The one child of the marriage had lived with his father since he was 18. During the marriage, the family had a frugal lifestyle living in rented accommodation and relying on state benefits. When they separated Mr Vince lived the life of a traveller for eight years. Ms Wyatt and the children variously lived on travellers’ sites, homeless shelters and eventually the council house in Monmouth.
It was common ground that Mr Vince had not provided adequate child support for his son or maintenance for Ms Wyatt, providing only £200 per month in cash in later years and second-hand cars.
When Ms Wyatt lodged her financial claims with the court Mr Vince applied to strike out (cancel) her claim on the basis her claim disclosed no reasonable grounds for bringing the application. The High Court dismissed Mr Vince’s application, he appealed against this order and the Court of Appeal granted his application. Ms Wyatt then appealed to the Supreme Court who granted her application.
The Supreme Court made it clear that Ms Wyatt faced an uphill struggle in her claim. There were five relevant factors which encouraged them to this view:
- The cohabitation lasted for barely two years;
- The relationship broke down 31 years ago;
- The standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower;
- Mr Vince only started to create his present wealth 13 years post-breakdown. (It was only four years after the divorce);
- Ms Wyatt made no contribution to the creation of the wealth.
The wife’s application was listed for a Financial Dispute Resolution appointment (“FDR”). This took place in the Family Division in October 2015. No agreement was reached at that hearing however a compromise was reached some months later and at the hearing, on 20 May 2016 the judge, Mr Justice Cobb was invited to approve the settlement.
The consent order provided that Mr Vince would pay Ms Wyatt a lump sum of £300,000 and payments towards her legal fees up to the Supreme Court hearing of £325,000. The lump sum award to Ms Wyatt represented approximately 0.05% of the value of Mr Vince’s energy business. The judge was satisfied that it was reasonable for the wife to receive a modest capital award following the breakdown of the marriage. He went on to say the lump sum payment agreed between the parties fairly represented a realistically balanced appraisal of the unusual circumstances of the case.
Two further issues arose at the hearing; firstly whether the terms of the settlement could be made public and also whether the husband should be ordered to pay the wife’s costs of the hearing on 20 May.
It was only after an agreement had been reached that Mr Vince’s solicitors argued the terms of the agreement should be kept private. Mr Justice Cobb concluded that as so much information was already in the public domain, indeed Mr Vince had been very vocal on the issues, there would be no detriment to the final outcome being publicised. Indeed there was a public interest in doing so. A further order for costs was made.
In short Wyatt v Vince is a timely reminder that every divorcing couple must enter into a binding financial settlement, normally by way of court order providing for at the very least a capital clean break, even if their assets are modest.