Often, separated or divorcing couples are able to reach an agreement between themselves regarding what should happen with their matrimonial assets.
Either sitting around the kitchen table or otherwise amicably discussing matters, they decide what should happen with the house, the money, their assets, without formalising that agreement legally.
They proceed on the misconception that if they obtain the ‘Final order” (previously a Decree Absolute) then that will be the end of their financial relationship too – and any financial agreement they have reached in respect of the finances is somehow ‘set in stone’ by virtue of the divorce being finalised.
However, there is no time limit in respect of making a financial claim from one ex-spouse to another, even after the final order of the divorce (final order) has been granted. Even once you have the final order of the divorce, it is still open for either of you to bring a claim upon the other.
This can happen despite any informal agreement reached between you both, no matter how many years may have passed since your divorce (except where you have re-married, which limits the potential financial claims you can make).
Can my Ex Claim Money After a divorce?
An ex-wife or husband can claim financial provision from their former spouse indefinitely, unless a clean break financial order is in place.
The recent reporting of the case concerning Mr Vince, the husband and owner of Ecotricity Group Limited (valued at £57m) and his ex-wife Ms Wyatt, has again highlighted this perhaps surprising and often misunderstood aspect of divorce law.
The Wife in this case chose to make a financial application against her ex-husband some 19 years after their divorce. The relationship had broken down some 31 years prior to the court hearing the application.
In the years that had passed, Mr Vince had built an impressive business empire providing eco-friendly power, by way of wind-turbines.
The outcome of this case became public in June 2016: Wyatt v Vince  EWHC 1368 (Fam)
In the Supreme Court judgment in this case on appeal, Lord Wilson noted that:
“Consistently with the potentially life-long obligations which attend a marriage, there is no time-limit for seeking orders for financial provision or property adjustment for the benefit of a spouse following divorce. Sections 23(1) and 24(1) of the 1973 Act provide that such orders may be made on granting a decree of divorce “or at any time thereafter”.”
Lord Wilson noted the ‘formidable difficulties’ that the wife had in pursuing her financial application:
- The marital cohabitation subsisted for scarcely more than 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;
- The husband did not begin to create his current wealth until 13 years after the breakdown;
- The wife has made no contribution, direct or indirect, to its creation.
The parties, after protracted and expensive litigation, eventually reached an agreement between them, which was then approved by the court.
They agreed that Ms Wyatt should receive £300,000.00 of her ex-husband’s assets – her original claim was for a fund nearer to £1.9m.
It must also be noted that both parties had clearly spent considerable sums on legal costs, which would be deducted from Ms. Wyatt’s lump sum once paid.
It would appear, perhaps, that Ms. Wyatt eventually compromised her claims, due to the mounting legal costs on her side, which would eventually have to be paid from any lump sum received. The husband, on the one hand, would have been able to cover any legal costs whilst the Wife was no doubt hampered by costs.
This is a paradigm example of the potentially negative implications of not pursuing a clean break financial order at the time of divorce.
What can be done?
It is only when you obtain a ‘clean break’ clause financial order before a divorce that you have protection against financial claims. This court order is issued through the family court and frees both parties from financial ties to the other.
During a divorce, this is not always possible, depending on the type of financial agreement necessary adequately support both members of the marriage. For example, ongoing payments may be needed as spousal maintenance to support an individual with no means to make their own income. Payments for child maintenance or as part of a pension-sharing order may also be appropriate.
Once these payments are no longer needed, or financial situations change significantly, changes may be pursued.
However, this is not to suggest that such an application is straightforward, as highlighted by Lord Wilson’s comments on the numerous legal hurdles Ms Wyatt faced, especially where an application is pursued so long after the end of the relationship.
A further overriding factor is that pursuing a claim long after the relationship has ended and the final order has been granted can mean considerable legal and personal cost for both parties.
This can be thought of in terms of the stress, time, and investment it takes to deal with protracted litigation, which took the parties at one stage, on appeal, to the Supreme Court. These effects are not to be underestimated.
In summary, for those whose fortunes have faired well since their divorce, it is a stark reminder that such claims remain possible against them.
For those considering a financial claim long after the divorce has occurred, it is clearly not an easy route, but in the absence of a clean break, it remains an option without any limitation of time.
Katy Zikking is a specialist family solicitor at Harbour Family Law Solicitors. You can contact her by e-mail at: email@example.com or by calling 0117 375 1780. Katy is a trained Collaborative solicitor. www.harbourfamilylaw.co.uk/methods
Katy has over 19 years experience of helping clients divorce – protecting their financial and emotional best interests.
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