The recent decision of Wyatt v Vince has sent
shockwaves through the legal world and produced two schools of
thought; one which supports the Court's decision in awarding
the wife a share of her ex-husband's fortune 19 years after
their divorce, and one which believes the judgement to be an
unorthodox decision which opens the floodgates to endless unfounded
claims for financial relief long after the divorce has been
So why was a historic claim for financial relief able to be
brought so long after the divorce?
Firstly, no documentary evidence existed to confirm whether the
parties had formalised a financial settlement dismissing all future
claims. Mr Vince argued that a Clean Break Order had been entered
into while Ms Wyatt's case was that no such Order was made. The
conclusion of the Court was that in the absence of a Consent Order,
it could not assume that all future claims had been dismissed.
Secondly, there is no limitation period for such claims to be
Background to the appeal
The couple met and married in 1981, separated in 1984 after
having a child and divorced some 8 years later in 1992. At the time
of the marriage, neither party had any income or assets and they
lived largely on state benefits. However, in the mid 1990's, Mr
Vince founded a company which came to have an estimated market
value of £57m. News of Mr Vince's post-marriage wealth
resulted in an application by Ms Wyatt for a lump sum payment of
£1.9 million in settlement of all claims (which she argued
remained open) and for legal costs.
The outcome and its implications
The parties agreed to settle on the basis that Mr Vince pay Ms
Wyatt a lump sum of £300,000 in settlement of all further
claims plus payment of her legal costs. Albeit a modest success in
comparison to the original claim, the Court's decision is very
unsettling for divorced couples who are yet to legally finalise
It would appear that the main factor in Ms Wyatt's success
was the consideration the Court gave to her contribution to the
family in raising the couple's son, deemed to be unmatched by
So why does the general consensus of opinion appear to
demonstrate a reluctance to celebrate this case as a victory for
divorced mothers who sacrifice their own careers to raise the
children and commend the Court for recognising, valuing and
compensating the same? Perhaps the answer to this is twofold with
both legal and moral connotations. Legally, it is difficult to
comprehend the weight given by the Court to such a contribution
when balanced against the short duration of the marriage, the low
standard of living of the parties and the delay in proceedings
being brought. Morally, it is inconceivable that a party should be
entitled to a portion of an ex-spouse's wealth generated so
long after and entirely separate to the marriage.
While the decision in this case leaves the landscape in this
area somewhat unclear, we appear to be able to take 3 key points
from it with as much certainty as any litigation will allow.
Firstly, that in any claim in which the existence of a final order
is uncertain, the Courts are likely to assume that one was never
entered into and allow the claim to proceed.
Secondly, regardless of whether the claim is ultimately
successful, the Respondent will have to endure protracted Court
proceedings and incur considerable legal costs (which will far
outweigh the cost of finalising a financial settlement at the
Thirdly, but most importantly, the case highlights the
importance of ensuring that all financial settlements, regardless
of the value and complexity of the assets involved, are embodied in
a Court Order, not only to protect the assets being divided at the
time but also to provide financial certainty in relation to assets
which might be accrued post-divorce. In a climate where legal aid
is available only in extremely limited circumstances, it is all too
tempting for divorcing couples to resolve their finances by way of
an informal arrangement or in some cases, not at all. The decision
in Wyatt v Vince should serve as a huge wake up call to
all divorcees who failed to formally finalise financial settlement
at the time of divorce and all those who are currently engaged in
or contemplating financial remedy proceedings.
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