Today, the Supreme Court is hearing the case of Mills v Mills, which concerns an application to vary or terminate an order for spousal periodical payments, or maintenance.

Mr and Mrs Mills divorced in 2002. Their son was young at the time, and Mrs Mills was awarded the majority of the liquid capital from the marriage, so that she could re-house. Mr Mills retained his business, which was the family’s main source of income, and was ordered to pay £1,100 per month maintenance on a ‘joint lives’ basis. A joint lives maintenance order remains payable until one or other party dies, or the recipient re-marries.

Unfortunately, Mrs Mills made some bad financial decisions, buying a series of properties with increasingly larger mortgages, and eventually had to move to rented accommodation. She applied to increase the level of maintenance.

Mr Mills had remarried. He was supporting his new wife, her child from a previous relationship, and their child together, as well as continuing to pay maintenance to Mrs Mills. He applied to reduce the amount of maintenance she received, and argued the obligation should come to an end after a fixed period (in other words, that the ‘joint-lives’ order should be replaced with a ‘term’ order).

On an application to vary maintenance, the court is required to consider all the circumstances, as they are at the time of the variation. At first instance, the judge found that Mrs Mills’ monthly income needs were £2,982 and her net monthly income was £1,541. This left her with a shortfall of £1,441 per month.

The judge dismissed both parties' applications, leaving Mr Mills to continue his payments of £1,100 per month under the 2002 order.

Mrs Mills appealed. She argued that she could not increase her earnings, and could not cut her expenditure further, and that Mr Mills should therefore pay the whole of the shortfall between her income needs and her income. Mr Mills cross-appealed.

The Court of Appeal allowed Mrs Mills’ appeal, finding that her needs were real, and that Mr Mills was in a position to afford to meet them. The maintenance was increased to £1,441 per month, on a joint lives basis. Mr Mills has appealed to the Supreme Court.

Mills v Mills raises important issues about the extent to which one spouse should be obliged to continue to support the other financially, long after the marriage has ended.

Unfairly characterised by the popular press as a ‘meal ticket for life’, joint lives maintenance orders are nonetheless controversial. It will be interesting to see whether the Supreme Court feels the time is right for change.