UK: Wind Of Change On Spousal Maintenance (Alimony)

Last Updated: 18 June 2015
Article by Michael Gouriet

Various reported cases in the English Family Courts over the last year indicate that the pejoratively termed 'meal ticket for life' may be on the wane.

By way of short recap, the Court has a statutory duty in every case to consider whether or not a clean break can be achieved on the division (which can be unequal) of property and capital assets between spouses on divorce. Where that is not viable, the Court will look to meet needs through ongoing spousal maintenance orders (known elsewhere as 'alimony'). As regards duration, the Court can award spousal maintenance on a 'joint lives' basis requiring the payments to be made (pending any future variation or further terminating order) until one of the parties dies or the recipient remarries. Alternatively, the Court may limit the maintenance to a period of years, for example through to the payer's retirement or until the children reach an age where the recipient can transition to financial independence. The Court also has the power to impose a statutory bar on the extension of that term, or leave the term open to extension if circumstances justify. Historically, the courts have taken a cautious approach in tending to award 'joint lives' spousal maintenance orders, putting the onus on the payer to vary in the future. However, the tide now appears to have shifted towards term limited maintenance orders.

The most recent headline grabbing case was Wright v Wright (2015) which attracted focus due to being strap-lined by the press as 'go get a job' – although this editorial licence somewhat masks the less abrupt reality of the decision. Pursuant to a court order made on a divorce in 2008, the husband (an equine surgeon whose earnings were approximately £150,000 net per annum) was required to pay spousal maintenance of £33,200 per annum (in addition to child maintenance and school fees for their two children aged 16 and 10). The wife who was 51 had in the past worked as a legal secretary and an administrator. At the original hearing, the District Judge had observed that once a child is in year 2 at school (ie, aged seven) most mothers can consider part time work consistent with their obligation to the children. The Judge awarded maintenance on a joint lives basis but commented that within two years of the order the wife should be able to make some financial contribution towards her own household expenditure.

In the vanguard of the more restricted judicial approach to spousal maintenance has been Mr Justice Mostyn.

In the case of NS v SS (2014) where the total liquid and illiquid assets had been divided equally giving each spouse approximately £1.65m (including pension share), the significant feature was the inclusion by Mostyn J of a list of relevant threads on the question of spousal maintenance that he drew together from prior case law.

Without reproducing the full list in this article, important elements included:

  1. 'A spousal maintenance award is properly made where the evidence shows that choices made during the marriage have generated hard future needs on the part of the claimant. The duration of the marriage and presence of children are pivotal factors.' That latter point is illustrated in the case of Murphy v Murphy [2014] where the husband had unsuccessfully applied for an automatic step down in maintenance three years after the divorce and the imposition of a term order to coincide with the end of the children's secondary education. As the couple had twins aged three years old, the Judge in that case decided it was 'too speculative' to impose a step down or a term in the circumstances of that case. A different approach, however, was taken in the case of Chiva v Chiva [2014] where the Court of Appeal endorsed a two year term maintenance order made by the trial court for a professionally qualified spouse in her mid-30s (she was an actuary) who had a three year old daughter.
  2. A spousal maintenance award 'should only be made by reference to needs, save in a most exceptional case where the sharing or compensation principle applies'.
  3. 'In every case the Court must consider a termination of spousal maintenance with a transition to independence as soon as it is just and reasonable. A term should be considered unless the recipient would be unable to adjust without undue hardship to the ending of payments. A degree of (not undue) hardship in making the transition to independence is acceptable.'
  4. 'Where the choice between an extendable term and a joint lives maintenance order is finely balanced, the statutory steer should militate in favour of the term'; but 'where the choice is finely balanced between an extendable and a non-extendable term, the decision should normally go in favour of the economically weaker party'.
  5. 'The marital standard of living is relevant to the quantum of the spousal maintenance award but that is not decisive. That standard should be carefully weighed against the desired objective of eventual independence.'

In that case, where the wife had applied for a 27 year extendable term maintenance order, Mostyn J awarded the wife spousal maintenance of £30,000 per annum indexed linked (to be paid from the husband's base salary of £300,000 (£170,000 net) for a term of 11 years (but without a prohibition on extension) plus 20% of the husband's net bonus (capped at £26,500 per year) for a seven year non-extendable term.

The Judge also commented that on an application to extend a term maintenance order, an examination should be made of whether the implicit premise underlying the original Order of the ability of the recipient to achieve financial independence by that time had been impossible to achieve and if so, why.

It is also noteworthy that when awarding a term maintenance order in an earlier case in 2014 (SA v PA), the same Judge stated 'I want to make it clear that it is my firm view that the failure of the wife to save the shortfall from those payments will not be a good reason to extend the term, unless the money is being spent on some reasonable but presently unforeseeable need'.

The SA v PA case is an example of the Court looking to achieve a clean break over a much shorter period in a high income case through a combination of factors such as awarding the recipient spouse a higher level of maintenance than their assessed income needs in the expectation that the surplus will be saved and used as a partial income generating fund once the term has ended. Consistent with the approach in other cases (including notably the maintenance variation proceedings in McFarlane [2009]), Mostyn J included in his deferred clean break calculations, not only commencement of pension drawdown in the years ahead but also further investment income becoming available to the recipient spouse through equity release by downsizing her home once the children reached a certain age or the parties reach retirement age. On the latter, the Court appears to accept retirement as being significantly lower than statutory pension age for those working in professional firms.

Besides taking a reasoned approach to the deferred clean break, the case of SA v PA is also of interest for its dismissive approach to the concept of compensation. Mostyn J concluded that the theory was 'extremely problematic and challenging both conceptually and legally'. He expressed the firm view that the Court would require 'near certainty that the spouse seeking compensation gave up a very high earning career and with an appreciable track record'; and that in the rare and exceptional cases where compensation is founded, it should be reflected by fixing a spouse's income needs toward the top end of the discretionary bracket and premiums ought to be avoided.

Whilst each case turns on its own specific facts and is subject to the broad discretion of the Judge before whom it is heard, these run of reported cases should be welcomed by high earners in particular who have (with some justification) perceived the erstwhile 'meal ticket for life' approach of the English Courts to be overly lenient on the issue of spousal maintenance.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions