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Maintenance: a meal ticket for life? The case of Mills v Mills

On Wednesday of this week, the Supreme Court heard the case of Mills v Mills [2017] EWCA Civ 129, which concerns Mr Mills’ appeal against the Court of Appeal’s decision to increase his ex-wife’s spousal maintenance payments. Often dubbed as “a meal ticket for life”, joint lives maintenance orders are undoubtedly controversial, and this case 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.

Background

Following their divorce in 2002, Mr and Mrs Mills’ financial claims were settled by a consent order which, amongst other things, provided for Mrs Mills to receive the majority of the capital so that she could be re-housed. The order also required Mr Mills to pay maintenance to Mrs Mills in the sum of £1,100 per month on a “joint lives” basis (i.e. until he or Mrs Mills die or Mrs Mills’ remarriage).

Mrs Mills subsequently made some poor financial decisions, including purchasing a series of properties with large mortgages. She eventually had to move to rented accommodation. She applied to the Court to increase the level of maintenance Mr Mills was paying to her.

Meanwhile, Mr Mills had a new wife and family to support, and was still having to pay maintenance to Mrs Mills in accordance with the terms of the 2002 consent order. Therefore, in 2014, Mr Mills made an application to reduce the amount of maintenance payable to Mrs Mills and for his obligations in that respect to come to an end after a fixed period rather than continue on a joint lives basis.

Mr Mills’ argued that the circumstances in which the 2002 order was made had changed, namely:

  • Mrs Mills had lost the capital she was awarded in 2002 through her own gross financial mismanagement; and
  • Mrs Mills was now in a position to work (or work more) in order to increase her earnings and should not therefore rely on him to financially support her.

Mrs Mills made a cross-application for an increase to the spousal maintenance payments on the basis that she was unable to meet her basic needs.

The Judge at first instance determined that Mrs Mills’ monthly incomes needs were £2,982 and her net monthly income was £1,541. There was therefore a shortfall of £1,441 per month. The Judge decided that the 2002 order should continue without any variation.

Mrs Mills appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Mrs Mill’s appeal and the Court of Appeal decision

Mrs Mills’ appeal was based on the argument that she could not increase her earnings or minimise her spending any further. Mr Mills cross-appealed.

The Court of Appeal allowed Mrs Mills’ appeal, finding that her needs were real and they could be met by Mr Mills. The maintenance was therefore increased to £1,441 per month and remained payable on a joint lives basis.

Mr Mills’ appeal to the Supreme Court

Mr Mills sought permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision from the Supreme Court, which granted him permission to appeal in August 2017 on a single ground: whether, provision having already been made for Mrs Mills’ housing costs in the capital settlement in the original 2002 order, the Court of Appeal was wrong in taking these into account when increasing her maintenance payments under the joint lives spousal maintenance provision contained in 2002 order.

The case was heard at the Supreme Court yesterday and judgment has yet to be delivered.

Implications

The term “meal ticket for life” (in reference to joint lives maintenance orders) was bandied about by the press in its coverage of the Mills v Mills case, particularly following the Court of Appeal’s decision. The also widely reported case of Waggott v Waggott [2018] EWCA Civ 727 (which was heard by the Court of Appeal after its decision in Mills v Mills – you can read more about that case here) indicated that the tides were turning from the provision of generous awards to wives in terms of spousal maintenance on the basis that parties should, where possible, work towards becoming financially independent from one another. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will endorse this approach. It will be helpful if the Supreme Court, in delivering its judgment, could give a clear indication as to how long after a divorce can one party still seek to rely on the other for financial support, and whether a party to a marriage should be faced with the financial consequences of the other person mismanaging their own finances after the making of a financial order.

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