Most cases reported in the media, and indeed those on which case law is based, surround “big money” divorces of potentially high profile celebrities, the sort that very few of us could ever imagine being involved in, either as a client or as a family lawyer.
Their wide notoriety does skew the perception held by many that a wife who has been a home-maker would be entitled to receive spousal maintenance for life after her divorce – the so called “meal ticket for life” settlement.
In reality these cases are few and far between, and if you speak to family lawyers up and down the country, you will find that the majority of cases typically end with a clean break on income.
With this in mind, but with little data to back up anecdotal evidence, and so as to better inform those involved in the Family Justice Review, a report was commissioned to look at what is a “typical” financial remedy case before the courts.
Although concerns were voiced at the time, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 was introduced and ongoing maintenance awards could potentially become lifelong meal tickets, but without any data this could not be verified. It is only now with the Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill 2017-2019 passing through parliament that research has been commissioned to find out the effect spousal maintenance orders has on ordinary people involved in everyday cases.
The report FINANCIAL REMEDIES ON DIVORCE: THE NEED FOR EVIDENCE-BASED REFORM by Emma Hitchings and Joanna Miles, University of Bristol and University of Cambridge can be found on the Nuffield Foundation website at http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org
Their research turned up some figures that would be unsurprising to those in practice, but also looked at the potential impact of the making of clean break orders and the circumstances in which spousal maintenance orders (PPOs) were commonly made.
The data in this report was gathered from 400 divorce cases going through the courts where a financial remedy was sought, focus groups held with Family District Judges and discussions with family solicitors or mediators. Over 2/3rds of cases before the court do not ask for a financial remedy, so the original sample was 1200 cases.
Of the 400 cases where a financial order was made, 70% were made by consent and a further 20% made by consent following some kind of contest. This left only 10% of those cases, and 3% of all cases, that were decided by the courts without any consent from the parties.
Again, unsurprisingly, it is those couples with greater assets, pensions and income that seek to make a financial settlement, whether by consent or otherwise. However, a number of cases in the survey did involve a complete clean-break order where there were no assets, a prudent move to make to avoid later claims on assets and wealth acquired post-divorce.
Of those cases included in the survey, none had the husband as the home-maker; 56 (14%) showed the wife as the home-maker, with no other earnings declared. 40% had the husband in the high earning category and just 28% of the wives were in the same category.
So how does this reflect in the making of spousal maintenance orders?
Predictably, the greater the assets and income, the more likely there was to be a PPO made. But in reality, PPOs were only made in 16% of the sample cases.
A clean break was preferred in the majority of cases, whether for simplicity sake or just to break financial ties once and for all. However, this desire for a clean break must be seen in the context of the “present bias” where separating parties, particularly mothers, focus on their immediate needs and not on the longer term. Conversely, many husbands are protective of their pensions. This often results in wives retaining the house, commonly with financial assistance from people other than their spouse, and husbands retain their pensions.
The clean break does not necessarily mean there are two self sufficient individuals. In later life, these wives find that their earning capacity is drastically affected by periods of not working whilst raising the children. The husband’s earning potential is not affected in this way.
So, wives tend to take longer to recover financially post-divorce, relying not on support from their ex-husband but on the support of new partners and the state. Men actually experience an improved standard of living post-divorce.
In the sample of cases looked at, 83.5% contained a clean break on income. Where there were children, 2/3rds had evidence of child maintenance either in the order, or with external agencies or private agreements.
Most startling was that almost all PPO cases were those involving children, with the duration of the PPO being linked to the youngest child completing education in 75% of cases. Over half of these, or one third of the overall PPO cases, gave the spouse a nominal PPO only, thereby not benefitting the wife beyond the point when the children became financially independent.
Where there were no minor children remaining in the family, spousal maintenance was given in only 9 cases, presumably where the wife would be at an economic disadvantage having been a home-maker. In a further 2 of the 400 sample cases maintenance was awarded where there had never been children of the family. Of those 2 cases, both were non-extendable orders giving transitional support only.
So, as can be seen from the numbers, the “meal ticket for life” is the exception rather than the rule. In fact, it is likely that many of those wives, raising children and staying at home for extended periods of time, are likely to reach a point where their income will fall off the cliff.
The difficulty with undertaking this valuable research only now, 50 years after the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into force, means that the long-term impact on potentially economically disadvantaged spouses has not been measured, other than by the sensationalised press and big money cases that we see reported. To quote Hitchings and Miles, rather than the “meal ticket for life” the headlines should possibly read of the “enduring, disproportionate economic impact of divorce on women”. But that doesn’t sound quite so catchy, does it.
The figures above are extracted from the report by Emma Hitchings and Joanna Miles as quoted above, and the full report can be read on the Nuffield Foundation website.
% of total divorce cases
% of cases where order made
Approximate number of divorce cases at time of sample
Number of sample cases
Number made by consent
Number made by consent after some contest
Number decided by court
Husband as homemaker
Wife as homemaker
Husband in higher income bracket where any order made
Wife in higher income bracket where any order made
Cases containing a clean break
% of total divorce cases
% of cases where order made
Cases containing PPO
Cases where there were minor children of the family
Cases where PPO made and there are no children
Cases where PPO was time limited to child(ren)’s minority
Cases where PPO granted and there had never been children of the family
Joint lives orders