The Supreme Court’s decision in the long running case of Mills –v- Mills has now been made. The Supreme Court was asked to look into whether or not the court was entitled to decline an increase in Mrs Mills’ maintenance payments in respect of some or all of her rent when her housing needs had been fully addressed in the original divorce proceedings.
Mr and Mrs Mills divorced in 2002. They had a young son who continued to live with the mother. Mrs Mills was awarded the majority of the liquid capital of the family assets, some £230,000, in relation to her housing needs. She transferred the family business, the main source of the family income, to Mr Mills. Mrs Mills was further awarded maintenance for life of £1,200 (£13,200 per annum). Life maintenance will be ongoing until a trigger brings the arrangement to an end, such as the death of one party, the remarriage of the receiving party or a further order of the court.
Mrs Mills made some very bad financial choices buying properties with increasingly larger mortgages and eventually ended up having to live in rented accommodation with her now adult son. She made an application to the court to have the amount of maintenance Mr Mills was paying increased. Mr Mills, who was now married and looking after his new family which included two young children, made a cross application to have the maintenance he was paying reduced and he further argued that the maintenance payments should be for a fixed term and not for life.
The court dismissed both applications despite the fact that Mrs Mills’ monthly income needs had a substantial shortfall. Where an application is made to the court to vary the terms of spousal maintenance payments the court must consider the circumstances at the time of the application. Mrs Mills’ shortfall was genuine however the court dismissed the applications in any event.
Mrs Mills appealed to the Court of Appeal arguing that she was unable to increase her monthly income and could not decrease her expenditure further and for this reason the maintenance should increase and Mr Mills should pay the shortfall between her income and her income needs. Mr Mills made a cross application. The Court of Appeal found in Mrs Mills’ favour and ordered the maintenance payment to be increased to £1,441, £17,292 per annum. Mr Mills appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court allowed Mr Mills’ appeal on the amount of the maintenance but he was not permitted to appeal the decision that he should continue to pay maintenance for life. The Supreme Court found in his favour and ordered the maintenance to be brought back to its original amount of £1,100 per month as per the 2002 order. The Supreme Court held that Mrs Mills’ housing needs had been fully addressed within the award she had received in 2002. Her current needs were a result of the choices she had made. Ordering Mr Mills to pay an increased amount now would mean that he would be paying for her housing needs twice, first in 2002 when she took over 90% of the liquid capital and now the increase in her rent. Mrs Mills was effectively asking Mr Mills to be responsible for the consequences of her bad financial decisions.
This decision has not done away with the maintenance for life awards neither has it barred applicants from making applications due to the wide discretion the Court has. However the Supreme Court has set the bar high for varying awards where the housing needs of one party have been fully addressed in the original divorce proceedings despite the fact the paying spouse may be able to afford the increase that has been applied for.