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It is not uncommon for a couple’s financial circumstances to change a great deal after they divorce, and in such circumstances it will often happen that the poorer ex-spouse will seek to reopen the earlier financial settlement in an attempt to gain a bigger slice of the cake.
The long-awaited judgment in a case that dealt with precisely such circumstances, which was heard more than a year ago, has now been handed down by the Court of Appeal.
The parties to the dispute were a man and his ex-wife, who had separated in 1981 and divorced in 1992. The couple had one child together. During the time they were together, neither of them had any significant assets. After they divorced, the ex-husband started a business which became extremely successful and their son went to work for him after completing his education.
In 2011, the ex-wife launched proceedings claiming support from her former husband. The dispute was complicated by the very long time that had elapsed between the divorce and the application. The original court files had been destroyed and there was no evidence, one way or the other, that the ex-wife had made any claim for financial support at the time of the separation or divorce.
The prime argument against the ex-wife’s claim was that there had been an inordinate delay in bringing it. In rejecting it, Lord Justice Thorpe noted that she had been impecunious for all her adult life. He commented, “Her husband was the most improbable candidate for affluence. The wife no doubt can appeal to his sense of charity but in my judgment he is not to be compelled to boost the wife’s income […] He is not her insurer against life’s eventualities.”
The other judges agreed, Lord Justice Jackson concluding, “In my view, the court should not allow either party to a former marriage to be harassed by claims for financial relief which (a) are issued many years after the divorce and (b) have no real prospect of success. It must be an abuse of the court’s process to bring such proceedings.” He described the ex-wife’s claim as a ‘classic example’ of the sort of abuse which would occur if this were to be allowed.
The case will give comfort to those whose fortunes have increased significantly over time compared with those of their ex-spouse and are fearful that their improved finances may lead to a claim against them.