The Court of Appeal has ruled that a Surrey man must increase the maintenance payments to his ex-wife which will continue indefinitely until further order of the court.

Graham Mills, a surveyor and Maria Mills, a former estate agent married in 1988, separated in 2001 and divorced in 2002. At the time of the divorce they reached an agreement whereby Mrs Mills received almost all of the couple’s liquid capital of approximately £230,000 in order to buy a house to live in with their son and Mr Mills retained his business. Mr Mills also agreed to pay maintenance to Mrs Mills of £1,100 per month. The Court of Appeal has now ordered that the maintenance payments should increase to £1,441 per month because Mrs Mills is unable to meet her basic needs.

Mrs Mills, now aged 51 invested the lump sum unwisely and over-financed in a bid to move up the property ladder, first buying a property in Weybridge, before upgrading to a flat in Wimbledon and then a flat in Battersea, eventually leaving herself with mortgages she could not pay. She was left with no capital following the sale of the Battersea flat and now rents a property in Weybridge.

Mr Mills, now aged 50 who has remarried and lives in Guildford argued that he should not have to pick up the tab for his ex-wife’s poor financial decisions and should be able to move on with his life.

Mrs Mills’ claim was initially rejected in the Family Court, but the Court of Appeal ruled that although Mrs Mills had mismanaged her finances, she had not been profligate or wanton and noted that following the divorce she was left with the responsibility for caring for a young child and suffered health problems in subsequent years which has impacted on her ability to work. She currently works two days per week as a beauty therapist.

Mr Mills’ barrister, Philip Crayford QC argued that a decision in favour of the wife went against the ‘tide towards seeking independence’ and that the time was long overdue for the wife’s dependency on the husband to end. He also suggested that the law should be changed to limit ex-spouses to a maximum five years of maintenance payments in light of social change.

The Court of Appeal however ruled that the Judge in the Family Court had fallen into error by assessing Mrs Mills’ needs as £1,441 per month but not then making an order to increase the maintenance payments to this level when there was no question that Mr Mills could afford to pay. No value was put on Mr Mills’ business interests but the court was told that he had previously drawn dividends of up to £200,000 per year.

This case does appear to contradict the trend in recent cases where a transition to financial independence has been encouraged as soon as possible, with maintenance payments being limited to several years rather than the richer party supporting the poorer party for life. This case illustrates the continuing uncertainty around the law regarding orders for spousal maintenance and is a stark reminder that each case will be decided on its own facts with few hard and fast rules to guide divorcing couples.