Is it Open Season on Ex-Spouses?


Author: Teresa Cullen


The case decided in the Supreme Court yesterday left “poor” Dale Vince open to a claim from his ex-wife almost 20 years since the relationship with her had ended. Mr Vince lives with his new wife and their five year old son in an apparently rather lovely £3,000,000 18th century property in Gloucestershire. He owes his massive wealth estimated to exceed £100,000,000 to wind farms.

At the time of his divorce in 1992 Mr Vince was far from wealthy; he lived in an old ambulance which was powered with a home-made wind turbine. His ex-wife obviously kept tabs on him and, having established that he founded one of the UK’s biggest green energy companies, decided that she would ask the Court to award her some part of his fortune on the basis that she had not received anything from him at the time of their divorce.

There was in fact good reason for her not receiving anything at the time of the divorce – at that time neither of them had any money, hence living in an ambulance and Ms Wyatt being supported on benefits.

The Supreme Court, the highest Court we have, has ruled that despite the elapse of time Ms Wyatt may bring a claim against her ex-husband. It is not guaranteed that that claim will be successful, nor has it said that it will award her the millions she is seeking.

But should ex-spouses be worried? In short – yes.

Clients are often incredulous when I explain to them that simply because they are getting a divorce they also need to deal with the financial matters. I am assured, time after time, that this is “not necessary” as they and their ex-spouse are on “good terms” and have both decided not to make any claim against the other. I explain, whilst watching the look of surprise pass across their face that without an Order from the Court formally dismissing their ex-spouse’s claims those claims remain live.

It is a unique area of law, most other claims that can be brought have to be brought within a certain period determined by the Limitation Act. This can range from bringing a personal injury claim against somebody who has caused an accident (which was not your fault) which needs to be brought within three years, to a claim in the Tribunal against your employer which needs to be lodged within six months, or a claim in contract which needs to be brought within six years. All of these claims have cut-off periods and rightly so; can you imagine the situation where an employer remains on tenterhooks thinking that any disgruntled employee over the business’ 20 years of trading can bring a claim – just as the business floats?

Any divorcees reading this should, out of an abundance of caution, before you go to sleep this evening cast your mind back over your past and try to recall whether you have any former ex-spouses, who you may have forgotten (or tried to) where the claim may still be live. The passage of time does not erode it, and your wealth is at risk.

The claim against Mr Dale will now be heard in the Family Court which will now ultimately decide whether his ex-wife succeeds. In the meantime, I share Mr Dale’s view that it really is “open season” on ex-spouses.

Teresa Cullen, Partner, Fladgate LLP (tcullen@fladgate.com)

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