Is a meal ticket for life now a bargain bucket?

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By Daniel Russell

Last night BBC One marked a television first – The Split, a drama mini-series which revolves around three divorce lawyer sisters and what one can only assume will be prove to be thoroughly dramatic high-net-worth divorces.

That the programme was commissioned certainly proves that the appetite for very public marriage splits and the ensuing divorces is in no great danger of being satisfied any time soon.

Whether this obsession comes from the ‘there but for the grace of God …’ school of thought or something altogether more ghoulish, who can say? But type ‘celebrity divorces’ into Google and you’ll be presented with a truly bewildering list of marriage break-ups (often featuring very rich ‘celebrities’ whom you had absolutely no idea existed, never mind being married).

Divorces involving people with a high net worth are a particular favourite for the gossip columns and entertainment press, and particularly so when they take place in London - known as the so-called high-net-worth divorce capital of the world by virtue of the courts’ reputation for largesse in favour of the non-paying party (particularly wives) when it comes to giving judgments.

The position of the courts in England and Wales has generally been to view the business of making a home and raising a family as being on a par with the business of putting bread on the table. In this way, marriage – for the purposes of ending it, at least – is seen as a 50-50 deal. And surely only the most misogynistic among us would argue the broad egalitarianism of that.

The question, though, is one of what is fair and what best serves both parties.

Over the past week or so, would-be beneficiaries from divorces involving large financial assets have been given a glimpse of a future in which they simply won’t be able to rely on a bottomless supply of cash from their partner.

The recent case of Kim and William Waggott is a good example of the way in which the courts have been gradually moving toward more realistic fixed term maintenance. Kim Waggott is a former financial controller for the UCI cinema chain and her ex-husband is the finance director of the TUI holiday firm. In 2014 they divorced, with Mr Waggott ordered to pay his ex-wife £9.76m in cash and £175,000 a year for the rest of their lives.

Mr Waggott protested, saying the settlement offered no incentive for his former wife to go back to work and support herself. Kim Waggott’s response was to seek a share of her ex-husband’s future earnings.

What she got instead was a nasty surprise.

Not only was she told she should go back to work if she wanted extra cash, but the original judgment was amended, with Mr Waggott’s ongoing maintenance payments limited to just three years.

What’s fair for both parties is at the heart of any divorce settlement, and where possible the courts will aim for a clean break, if that also satisfies the test of fairness. Where a clean break wouldn’t be fair, then a maintenance order may be seen as the best way to achieve a fair outcome.

At that point, the question is what period of maintenance might reasonably be considered to be fair. In the case of the Waggotts, the final judgment appears to have been that a meal-ticket of lifetime maintenance payments could not be considered fair to him, but that his ex-wife was deserving of some limited form of financial benefit after which she could – and, more importantly, should - provide for herself.

The ruling also recognises that any extension to the sharing principle materially and negatively affects the court’s ability to facilitate a clean break from which both parties can move on independently of one another.

And the practical legacy of the events of the past ten days? Well, there are several, including a reaffirmation of the basic principles of divorce settlement. But another is almost certainly that non-paying ex-spouses may now think twice before asking the courts to view their former partner as a cash cow.

Mark Norman