Column by Sheffield-based family and divorce lawyer Chris Burns: Is the tide turning from joint lives orders?

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In divorce proceedings heard originally in 2008, the district judge made a joint lives maintenance order that the husband, aged 59, pay to the wife, aged 51, £33,200 per annum and £10,400 per annum in respect of their two daughters. Prior to their marriage, the wife had worked as an administrator. She had not worked since the birth of their first child.

The husband subsequently applied in 2012 to reduce the maintenance payable. He argued that his financial circumstances had deteriorated, and the district judge had found that the wife would be expected within the following two years to begin to make a working contribution towards her own household expenditure.

Sheffield Crown Court

Sheffield Crown Court

On the husband’s variation application, judge Roberts concluded that in the original financial proceedings the court made it very clear that the wife should start to contribute financially. The judge also found that the husband had to postpone his retirement and had not been able to invest in his pension since the order. The judge found that the wife had done nothing since 2008 to look for work, retrain or prepare herself for work, instead relying on the income from the husband.

The judge ordered a graduated reduction of maintenance to enable the wife to improve her earning capacity through training as her childcare responsibilities reduced.

On appeal, lord justice Pritchard accepted judge Roberts’ findings. He noted that the wife missed working opportunities since the original order and if she earned £20,000 gross, her net annual income would be £16,555 and with tax credits, child benefit and the continuing childcare payments, she would have a household income of over £46,000 without depending on spousal maintenance. Lord justice Pritchard agreed with the comment of the original district judge who said: “There is a general expectation in these courts that once a child is in year two, most mothers can consider part time work consistent with their obligation to their children. I do not anticipate her having a significant earning capacity nor would it be reasonable to expect her to muck out stables for the minimum wage. However, she should make some financial contribution.”

This judgment is reflective of a moving change towards term orders as opposed to joint lives maintenance orders. It passes the onus onto the recipient to apply for an extension to the maintenance term, rather than the payer to seek a reduction or to bring the term to an end.