The pronouncement of an appeal court judge in England that the ex-wife of a horse surgeon has no right to expect 'an income for life' and should instead get a job, has created headlines proclaiming that spousal maintenance is 'no longer a meal ticket for life'.

Former legal secretary Tracey Wright had been awarded £75,000 a year in maintenance after splitting from her husband in 2008. This was part of a package which included a £450,000 house with stabling for horses.

But seven years after separation, the judge ruled she had 'made no effort whatsoever to seek work' and 'it was now imperative that the wife go out and support herself'.

The decision could be viewed as a nod of approval for the system of financial provision on divorce which has long operated in Scotland. In Scotland the idea that a divorcing spouse with a career history and who is fit to work would receive long term maintenance is an anathema.

The core philosophy in Scotland is the idea of a clean break. In other words, after a fair division of the capital, spouses are usually expected to be independent and self-sufficient.

While there will always be an obligation to maintain children of the marriage, ongoing spousal support is generally limited to a maximum of three years. The idea is to allow a spouse who has given up work during marriage to have up three years to adjust financially to divorce by re-training for employment or getting necessary qualifications.

Even then, that would only usually be paid in limited situations where the capital available was modest and one spouse had taken a considerable time out of work to support their partner or care for children.

Long term support – beyond three years – is only payable in exceptional cases where hardship can be demonstrated. Typically this would only be where one party through ill health cannot reasonably be expected to work or where a long marriage ends with a spouse who had never worked throughout the marriage finds they are at an age where the prospects of re-training or getting employment are remote.

Sometimes the Scottish regime has seemed harsh in comparison to the traditionally generous approach the English system has endorsed towards a dependent spouse. The three year cut off can seem inflexible in situations where the total capital or matrimonial property is restricted or is heavily loaded in a pension scheme. Spouses of high earning, but financially imprudent, husbands or wives can find their entitlement to a financial settlement does not appear to reflect the lifestyle they have previously enjoyed.

Yet the lessons from the Wright case might well be that Family Court Judges south of the border are starting to commend the greater certainty of the approach long adopted here.

We’re always happy to discuss things further.
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