Kathleen Wyatt, has won a landmark Supreme Court bid to claim cash from her millionaire ex-husband, 20 years after they divorced.

This is a striking ruling that underlines the fact there is no time limit for ex-spouses to apply to a court for a financial settlement following a divorce – however weak their claim may be.
 
Whereas there are strict time limits in other claims, such as those for breach of contract or personal injury, these claims can clearly be made decades after the divorce itself.
 
The judgment is also a timely reminder that divorcing couples who want protection from such claims, even if they have no money at all, should obtain an order from the court at the time of the divorce, in which they both agree that there will be no further financial claims.

That is the only way to guarantee that, if one of them goes on to make a fortune, they get to keep it.

THE BACKGROUND

The much-watched case, which had already been through the Appeal Court, involved Kathleen Wyatt and Dale Vince.

The couple were married in 1981 and divorced 11 years later in 1992. During their marriage they had little or no income, leading what has been described in court as a “travellers’ lifestyle”.

Because they had little or no assets at the time they split, no “financial order” was made as part of the divorce.

Not arriving at a financial settlement – even when there were no assets – left open the possibility for one or other spouse to make a claim in the future. And there is no maximum period or “time bar” after which claims can’t be brought before a court.

RAGS TO RICHES

During the Nineties Mr Vince went on to found Ecotricity, the renewable energy firm, and his personal wealth is now estimated at around £60m.

In 2011 Ms Wyatt launched her claim, and the case has since wound its way through numerous hearings.

Mr Vince’s lawyers have argued consistently that she has no claim, based on the time elapsed since their divorce. They argued that the courts should throw out the claim as invalid.

An initial ruling that she would be entitled to a hearing was subsequently thrown out, bearing out this view.

But the Supreme Court has said she does have the right to bring a claim after all.

However, it must be noted that the claim was possible only because in the original 1992 divorce no financial settlement, technically called a “financial order”, was made. This lack of settlement was what permitted Ms Wyatt to bring the case.

Prevention is better than cure in these circumstances and FLC recommends that divorcing couples should always reach a financial settlement, even where there are no assets.

SIGNIFCANT LEGAL COSTS

The judgement has so far been about the ex-spouse’s right to bring a hearing, with the “guidance” applying only to the merits of this particular case.

Substantial costs will now be incurred in determining Ms Wyatt’s application, despite the fact that ultimately there is a possibility that no financial award will be made.

Even if ex-spouses in such cases do not go on to win large pay outs, costs will still be racked up.

And, in addition, under divorce laws, Mr Vince is having to pay Miss Wyatt’s legal costs just to enable her to bring the claim to court, which had already topped £500,000.

Prevention, in some cases, is most definitely better than cure!