British Court Approves Woman’s Potential Support Claim 20+ Years After Divorce; Should Canada Follow Suit?
A recent court decision from Britain has given rise to considerable controversy all over the world: It centred around certain financial support claims of an ex-wife, who had been divorced from the ex-husband for more than 20 years.
The couple had met as students, married in 1981, and had a son together. However, after living what was described as a peripatetic “New Age” lifestyle, they separated after only two years, and formally divorced in 1992.
Despite the 30 years since their separation and 23 years since their divorce, in 2011 the ex-wife brought a claim for £1.9m as “financial remedy” under Britain’s equivalent of our own federal and provincial family legislation. The claim was likely prompted by the fact about 10 years after they split up, the ex-husband had become a multi-millionaire in the green energy sector: His company was now worth more than £57m, and as the sole shareholder his personal fortune was estimated to be about £107m.
Although initially a court rejected the ex-wife’s right to assert the claim (in what was essentially a motion to strike), a three-judge appeal panel allowed it to go forward to a full hearing, ruling that it was not an “abuse of process” and was “legally recognizable”. Although the appeal court did not opine on the merits at this stage, it did speculate that while £1.9m was likely “out of the question”, some drastically more modest award could be in the cards.
Whether and to what extent the ex-wife should receive a financial payout at this very late stage will be subject to numerous legal and factual considerations. The U.K. family law system is underpinned by similar values to those that direct the courts in Canada: Primary among these is a recognition that, in situations of divorce, the court must evaluate the contribution of each party to the welfare of the family. (In the ex-wife’s case, she had raised their son through “16 years of real hardship” while the ex-husband had provided only minimal and occasional support. The ex-wife stated that she had not previously pursued him for support because she assumed that he was still penniless, as they had been while married.) Also, as in Canada, the court will have to take into account a wide array of factors, including the short duration of the marriage, the wife’s long delay, and whether her current financial needs were brought about by her relationship with the husband.
Naturally, the case has garnered controversy in Britain because it raises the prospect that former spouses, particularly those who have amassed considerable wealth since a divorce, may need to fear that their ex-partners will pursue them for financial support many years or even decades later. Indeed from a bystander’s viewpoint – particularly those who have long-ago divorces lurking in their own relationship histories – the old adage, “let sleeping dogs lie” will probably come to mind. Furthermore, there are the “optics” to consider: The ex-wife’s sudden interest in pursuing a claim seems admittedly unseemly, given it was undoubtedly doubt prompted by the husband’s inordinate post-divorce success.
But not for these reasons alone, it is highly unlikely that such an excessively dilatory claim would succeed in Canada: As I have written before, in Canada the law governing family claims imposes time limits, or imposes restraints on how far back retroactive claims for child or spousal support can extend.
Still, it raises and interesting question: Should courts allow these “out-of-the-woodwork” potential claims to go forward, from ancient relationships that ended long, long ago? What are your thoughts?
For the full text of the decision, see:
Wyatt v. Vince,  WLR 1228,  1 WLR 1228,  UKSC 14