Margaret Hatwood explains why it’s important to get a court order finalising your financial obligations when you get divorced. A recent Supreme Court decision, has highlighted the dangers of not finalising financial arrangements when you divorce. Wyatt v Vince 2015 UKSC 14 considered a court application for financial remedy made by the former wife of a man who is now a multi-millionaire. The parties married in 1981 and had one child now aged 31. They separated in 1984. The wife Ms Wyatt brought up their child, a child she already had prior to the marriage and two children, who arrived later in poverty. They were divorced in 1992. In 2011 Ms Wyatt applied for a lump sum order in the divorce proceedings. It should be noted that the solicitors’ files relating to the divorce and the court files had long since been destroyed. However the Supreme Court took the view that there was nothing to indicate Ms Wyatt’s claims had been dismissed which meant that she was free to make a financial claim against Mr Vince despite the fact they had been divorced over 20 years. Following the decision, it is now clear that if there is not a court order in place that terminates the obligations of each spouse (or civil partner) to the other, financial claims can be made years later. The facts of the case are somewhat unusual which underlines the fact that it is not in every case that there will be an opportunity to make a claim many years later. Ms Wyatt’s circumstances were that she lives in a former local authority home in Monmouth. Also living with her are her daughter whom she had prior to her marriage, who was treated by Mr Vince as a child of the family, (and who herself now has a child aged 4). Also living there are Ms Wyatt’s two younger children now aged 21 and 18, whose father never supported them. 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 existing on state benefits. When they separated Mr Vince lived the life of a traveller for 8 years. Ms Wyatt and the children variously lived on travellers’ sites, a homeless shelters and eventually the house in Monmouth, which was inadequately heated (2 electric fires), had no hot water in the kitchen and was damp and unsecure. In 1996 Mr Vince installed his first wind turbine. His business began to generate a substantial pre tax profit. By 2000 it was over £400,000. By the time of the present hearing his business Ecotricity Group Ltd was worth £57m. 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 case disclosed no reasonable grounds for bringing or defending the application and claim was an abuse of the court’s process. The High Court dismissed Mr Vince’s application. However he appealed and the Court of Appeal granted his application and stuck out Ms Wyatt’s claim. Ms Wyatt then appealed and the Supreme Court granted her application. It’s important to note that the Supreme Court was clear that Ms Wyatt faces an uphill struggle to prove her case. The Supreme Court drew attention to 5 factors:- 1. The cohabitation lasted for barely 2 years. 2. It broke down 31 years ago. 3. The standard of living enjoyed by the parties prior to the breakdown could not have been lower. 4. Mr Vince only started to create his present wealth 13 years post breakdown. 5. Ms Wyatt made no contribution to the creation of the wealth. Ms Wyatt somewhat ambitiously argued she should receive £1.9. The court made it clear such an award was out of the question. However the Supreme Court also felt that Ms Wyatt had some powerful points namely that she had made the sole contribution to the welfare of the family. Specifically her care of Dane over 16 years post separation. Her care of the child of the family Emily from 1984 to 1994 and 1995 to 1997 when she became an adult, continuing in her adulthood. The absence of financial support from Mr Vince and the conditions of abject poverty in which she provided support. The court has accepted that, legally, her case is valid and she should be given the opportunity to argue why Mr Vince should financially assist her so long they split up. It doesn’t mean she will get a substantial settlement when the case is heard, or even that she will get anything at all. That decision will be for the court to make on the evidence. The circumstances that this former couple have found themselves in since their separation may be extreme, but as a family law solicitor it is not unusual for me to see people enquiring about financial settlements many years after divorce, often where they have found it difficult to cope while their former spouse has come into some wealth. There are many reasons why people don’t get round to sorting out their financial obligations when they get divorced: they may not know that they need to get a separate order from the court about financial matters, they may feel that it is better not to ‘rock the boat’ if they are on good terms with their ex, or they may simply not get round to it. In any event, as we can see from Wyatt v Vince, not tying up the loose ends does leave you susceptible to be tripped up later on. Tomorrow can seem a long way off when you are facing divorce. Nobody knows what the future holds: if you are lucky it may be a success in business or a large inheritance, and if you are unlucky it could be poor health, unemployment and housing problems. Collaborative law (where the parties commit to not going to court except to lodge a consent order with the court) and where the parties seek to resolve their dispute by round table meetings offers a constructive, cost-effective way of working out financial obligations after divorce and making sure that all the relevant issues are considered. Specialist collaborative family lawyers do their best to ensure that after your divorce, each of you can go forward with your life and not worry about unexpected future financial claims.