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Divorce law blog

The truth behind the “get a job” headlines

30/04/2015   By: Nicola Rowlings

Last month, a lot of fuss was made about a divorce concerning a vet and a stay at home mother. You may have seen some of the newspaper headlines. According to those papers, the wife had apparently been told by a judge to “go out and get a job”. The headlines suggested that a sensational change in the law had taken place – that divorced women could no longer expect to receive spousal maintenance and should go back to work once their children were at school. But is that what really happened?

Mr and Mrs Wright actually divorced in 2008 after a nine year marriage. They had two young daughters. At the time of the divorce, Mr Wright was ordered to pay joint lives spousal maintenance to his wife (joint lives means it was payable until either Mr or Mr Wright died or unless Mrs Wright remarried). Now, the amount of spousal maintenance can always be varied by the court – for example, it can go up if the payer’s financial circumstances improve or it can go down when their financial circumstances take a tumble. In 2012, Mr Wright applied to decrease the amount of maintenance he was paying because his financial circumstances had changed for the worse. He also relied on the fact that it had always been expected and intended that Mrs Wright would make a financial contribution towards her own expenditure.

The court agreed with him that the amount of maintenace Mrs Wright received should be decreased. They ordered that her maintenance be “stepped down” over a number of years. This meant that over 6 years, Mrs Wright’s maintenance would get gradually less and less to the point that, in 2019 (when her eldest child would be 15), her spousal maintenance would completely stop and she would need to be able to stand on her own two feet financially. The “stepping down” was intended to allow her to improve her earning capacity (she was a former legal secretary) as she gained experience and training, and her childcare responsibilities lessened whilst still having the safety net of her spousal maintenance.

Mrs Wright tried unsuccessfully to get her original joint lives maintenance award reinstated. And that is where the newspaper headlines come in. So, yes, Mrs Wright was told to “go and get a job” but that was because it had always been intended that that was what Mrs Wright would have to do. She was always expected to contribute to her own financial circumstances by getting a job. She wasn’t being told anything she did not already know (and should already have done).

This case hasn’t changed the law. There is no general rule that stay-at-home parents must work when their children are at school. So, if you are facing the prospect of having to pay spousal maintenance to your ex, you may still have to pay that maintenance. And you may have to pay that on a joint lives basis. If you receive maintenance, the case doesn’t mean that you must get back into the workplace or that joint lives spousal maintenance orders are now dead and buried. Whilst the case does show that there is a trend within the Family Court towards limiting the number of years spousal maintenance is paid for, the financial arrangements for each family on divorce will be assessed on the circumstances of that family. Like the Wright family, it will be appropriate for the non-working parent in some families to make a financial contribution; in other families, it will be appropriate for joint lives maintenance to be paid. There is no one-size-fits all approach and the financial arrangements made for each family will be bespoke to their financial situation and needs.

Nicola Rowlings

Professional Support Lawyer

for Mills & Reeve LLP

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