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The Supreme Court has upheld a decision by a judge at first instance in the case of Mills v Mills  UKSC 38 to decline a wife’s request to vary a periodical payments order.
The wife in this case had requested an increase in the level of periodical payments paid by the husband to meet her current needs as she now had to pay rental costs.
Under the terms of the consent order at the time of the couple’s divorce in 2002, the wife received £230,000 as well as periodical payments of £13,200 per year. The lump sum was anticipated to be used by the wife to purchase a home – mortgage free – for herself and her son. However, although she did initially purchase a property, over time, the amount of capital decreased. She began renting in 2009 and by 2015, she no longer had any capital left and in fact had debts of £42,000.
Both parties made applications under S31(1) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which allows the court to vary, discharge or suspend provisions made under a previous order. The husband applied to either discharge or reduce the periodical payments, and the wife applied to increase the periodical payments. The judge at first instance noted that although there was now a shortfall between the periodical payment amount and the wife’s needs, this was in part due to poor financial choices made by the wife. The judge therefore considered that it would be unfair to the husband to order that he contribute in full to the wife’s rental costs. The judge therefore declined any variation of the order, either upwards or downwards.
The wife appealed to the Court of Appeal, which was successful and the husband subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. His appeal was allowed on the ground that provision for the wife’s housing needs had already been made under the capital settlement. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the judge at first instance was entitled to refuse to vary the current order and that he had given a clear decision as to why.
This decision reaffirms the court’s discretion under S31(1) and (7) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to vary an order for periodical payments and suggests that the court must have very good reasons for requiring a spouse to fund payment of the other spouse’s rent in circumstances such as these. It also reiterates recent judicial thinking that there should be no “meal ticket for life” following a divorce and that there is an expectation of the non-earning spouse to take responsibility for their own finances after a divorce.