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Divorce and the Right to Lifetime Support

The recent confirmation by the Court of Appeal that maintenance payable to a woman by her ex-husband should be substantially reduced as he approached retirement is a reminder that the courts can exercise discretion when determining such matters.

The former couple had two children during their 11-year marriage and their marital home was worth £1.3 million. Following their divorce, the property was sold and the wife was left with a mortgage-free home worth £450,000. Her ex-husband, who had been the family's main breadwinner, was also ordered to pay £33,200 a year in spousal maintenance as well as the children's school fees.

The husband, aged 59, was concerned that his maintenance payments would be unaffordable after his retirement and applied to the High Court for a variation of the order. A family judge acceded to his request, ruling that his payments should be steadily reduced to zero over a five-year period.

The judge noted that large numbers of women with children manage to hold down jobs and that working mothers are often seen as good role models by their offspring. The wife had made no effort to retrain or find work in the six years since her divorce and had been 'evasive' about her earning potential.

The wife's lawyers challenged that decision at the Court of Appeal, arguing that her ability to work was compromised by her childcare duties. The reduction in her maintenance was bound to have a serious impact not only on her own lifestyle but on those of her children, the youngest of whom is aged ten.

However, in refusing permission to appeal, the Court found that it was 'imperative' that the wife should work to support herself. The judge had not accepted any of her explanations for her 'inactivity' and there was a general expectation that, once children are aged seven or over, mothers would take at least part-time work and begin to make a financial contribution. The original maintenance order had never been intended to provide the wife with an income for life.

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