A top family law judge, Sir James Munby, has sent a robust message to divorcing couples: the law will not allow ex partners to hand over their spousal obligations to a new partner.
Mr and Mrs Hart enjoyed a long relationship: they started living together in 1983, married in 1987 and together had two children. The marriage was a long one – lasting over 20 years -and the couple enjoyed a high standard of living: residing in a 5 bedroom gated home with gym and home cinema, valued at some £1.1 million. They had homes in Miami and Spain and total assets worth around £10 million.
Divorce proceedings commenced in 2011. During the course of the lengthy proceedings, Mrs Hart moved in with her new partner, Mr Chubb.
Financial proceedings went to a final hearing before Judge Wildblood, who ordered a financial settlement of £3.5 million.
Mr Hart appealed to the Court of Appeal, arguing that he should be paying less because Mrs Hart was now living with a new partner and could therefore rely on Mr Chubb to meet her financial needs. Outside of the Court of Appeal, he was quoted by the press as saying that Judge Wildblood “definitely got this one wrong”.
Couples have three claims against their former spouses: capital (division of the assets), maintenance (how much spousal and child maintenance should be paid each month) and pension (which typically boils down to whether a pension sharing order can be implemented). Spousal, but not child, maintenance ceases in the event of remarriage.
It is worth remembering that any references to the family assets as ‘Mr Hart’s wealth’ are factually incorrect: the case of White v White tells us that family law works on the yardstick of equality and the contributions of the ‘breadwinner’ and the ‘homemaker’ are to be treated equally.
The Court of Appeal heard that Mr Hart believed his financial obligations to Mrs Hart should be reduced to take into account the fact that she was living as ‘man and wife’ with Mr Chubb, and had been for some time. Mrs Hart explained that yes, she was living with Mr Chubb; and yes, they shared household expenditure.
However, Mrs Hart also told the court that she had no current plans to remarry and that she should be entitled to her financial independence after a 20 year marriage.
The Court of Appeal found in favour of Mrs Hart and acknowledged the difficult decision Judge Wildblood had been faced with: an aggrieved husband or a stranded wife. That said, the new relationship with Mr Chubb did not negate Mr Hart’s legal obligation to his former wife. Sir James Munby held that Mrs Hart’s new partner “did not diminish her needs”.
“The Court of Appeal reaffirmed the well-established principle that all financial ‘needs’ must be met by the parties to a marriage and that these responsibilities cannot be shirked. “Sir James Munby offered long overdue and critical guidance on the part that new partners have to play in this exercise. “His comments and judgment will therefore be relevant to all those looking to move on with their lives following a divorce as well as those looking on suspiciously at their spouse’s new partners hoping that they may represent a get out of jail free card.”
This case sends a welcome message to divorcing spouses that their financial obligations do not cease at the end of the marriage. Further, the existence of a new partner does not diminish the obligations owed by a former spouse. Marriage should be entered into freely and for the right reasons; moving on emotionally should not result in a lost claim to marital assets nor should it result in a former spouse feeling like marriage is the only way to secure financial security.