A new briefing paper funded by the Nuffield Foundation has found that high profile, ‘meal ticket for life’ cases have given a distorted view of final settlements in divorces.

Dr Emma Hitchings (University of Bristol) and Joanna Miles (University of Cambridge) recently published a briefing paper outlining key findings from their research on financial settlements in divorce cases. The briefing focuses on the current debate over ‘meal ticket for life’ divorces and provides evidence to refute widespread anecdotal claims of women as lifelong ‘alimony drones’.

A key finding from the study highlights that immediate clean breaks between divorcing couples are prevalent (84% of cases in the court file survey). Indeed, despite media attention garnered by ‘meal ticket for life’ awards, spousal support orders in the study were unusual and tended to be limited to cases involving families with dependent children.

The research project addresses the significant evidence-gaps regarding the law and practice of financial settlements that were identified by the Family Justice Review in 2011, with the aim of informing future reform and policy developments for the benefit of families. Financial remedies on divorce: the need for evidence-based reform reports findings from a mixed methods study of financial settlements on divorce, analysing the characteristics of a variety of cases.

By moving away from high profile cases, the researchers sought to create a more balanced picture. They suggest that, “The need for empirical data in ‘everyday’ cases is particularly necessary given the magnetic pull of the ‘big money’ cases that typically fill the law reports and media reporting in this arena, which between them may generate a rather distorted image of what this area of law means for ordinary families.” The briefing illustrates the gendered nature of economic disparity resulting from divorce in more ‘everyday’ cases and critically questions proposed reforms of the law of financial remedies that are calling for restrictions on spousal maintenance.

The report finds that around a quarter of mothers with dependent children are not working and less than half of single mothers of children under 2 are in paid employment. Meanwhile, many fathers say that they want to get more involved in childcare, but various cultural, psychological and economic barriers prevent their doing so. The latest ONS data show that women on average still carry out 60% more unpaid work than men. Many women see that they incur a ‘motherhood penalty’ – in reduced earning capacity and savings/pension accumulation – the impact of which will be felt following divorce. It is therefore unsurprising that Fisher and Low, analysing longitudinal British Household Panel Survey data, found that wives who later divorced had on average contributed just 36% of the matrimonial household’s income during the marriage. They also found that both the impact of divorce and recovery from it was on average considerably worse for wives than for husbands, whose position – measured in terms of equivalised household income – by contrast, on average, improved following divorce.  It argues that until society achieves greater socio-economic equality, “As forty years ago, the greater problem may not be over-generosity to ex-wives, but the enduring, disproportionate economic impact of divorce on women.”

Baroness Deech’s Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill 2017-19, which received its Second Reading in the House of Lords in May 2018, complains about the ‘lifelong meal ticket’ of ‘alimony drones’. Baroness Deech has expressed concern about what she considers to be the indignity, ‘victim mentality’ and gender inequality perpetuated by the provision of lifelong spousal support for ex-wives. Recent media and parliamentary debate has tended largely to focus on the atypical (mostly very high-value) cases that attract media attention and which Baroness Deech typically sees. This briefing paper seeks to examine what official statistics and recent research tell us about the reality of financial provision on divorce for ordinary people in ‘everyday’ cases.

The survey found, contrary to high value cases, the reality for everyday cases is that:

  • the ‘clean break’ culture is prevalent
  • Spousal support orders are largely confined to cases involving dependent children of the family
  • Very few such orders are made in cases without children of the family (of any age)
  • There is geographical variation in courts’ use of spousal periodical payments
  • But this variation may be more a product of local wealth levels and housing costs than ideological difference.

The survey found that spousal maintenance featured in just 16% of cases in the court file sample, with Mesher (and similar) orders in relation to the ‘Former Matrimonial Home’ and pension attachment were rare. The report found that, contrary to what is written in the press, this clean break norm might actually under-protect economically vulnerable wives where their ‘present bias’, causes them to focus on immediate needs (particularly of their children) and not their own longer-term positions. Judges were also conscious that wives’ own efforts to improve their economic position through paid employment would, over time, interact with the withdrawal of benefits and tax credits once the children left their household in a way that might leave them no better off overall, and possibly worse off, after the benefits-loss. The most striking finding is how the spousal support payments were actually (almost) all about children – the duration of payments in about three-quarters of the non-joint lives orders was linked to the youngest child achieving a milestone (age or education stage).

The report concludes that evidence-based policy and law-making that seeks to identify and understand the lived realities of ‘everyday’ couples who have experienced divorce is indispensable. Rather than being ‘undignified’, or reflective of or reinforcing a ‘victim mentality’, receiving the benefit of orders that acknowledge the economic impact of how a couple have chosen – or have been required by circumstance – to raise their children protects the dignity of the primary carer, more fairly distributing between the parties the full economic impacts, positive and negative, of their marital partnership. Despite all the media attention attracted by high value cases in which joint lives awards are made, the ‘meal ticket for life’ award is, in practice, rare.

This research was recently presented by the authors at a round-table meeting at the House of Lords. A Committee of the Whole House will consider the Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill which aims to limit spousal periodical payments. At Cambridge Family Law Practice, we watch with interest.

If you have any questions about spousal maintenance or the division of assets, you can call 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Tricia, Simon, Adam, Sue, Gail or Jeremy!