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Laws of Eve: It pays to be a housewife

Published:Monday | April 4, 2016 | 4:00 AM

When relationships fall apart and issues concerning marital property and spousal support arise, spouses usually try to assess the likely outcome of a court battle. For lawyers, that is difficult advice to give, because in matters of that nature no precedent provides a truly reliable basis on which to predict the findings of a court. Each case is determined on its own peculiar facts.

In early March, 2016, the Internet was abuzz with articles about the English Court of Appeal's decision in the case of Jane Morris (JM) v Peter Morris (PM). The case raised eyebrows because it was hard to believe that a court could have awarded a former wife the lion's share of the family assets.

JM and PM were married for 25 years and had three children. At the start of the marriage, JM had a promising career as a recruitment specialist. PM was the managing director of a software company and, by agreement, JM gave up her career to be a housewife and to raise the couple's three children.

 

Lavish living

 

PM was very successful, the family lived lavishly, occupied a home that was purchased for £1.2 million, and their children attended expensive schools. Even after the marriage broke down and the parties separated, they did not alter their lifestyles. In fact, there was evidence that PM took six expensive vacations within a nine-month period, and JM spent over £5,000 on her birthday party. In the end, the family's wealth was substantially depleted, leaving £560,000.

The judge awarded almost £500,000 to JM and £66,000 to PM. Among the reasons for the judgment, the judge reportedly cited the fact that JM "needs adequate maintenance", because she had sacrificed her career and was left with "low earning capacity ... in her middle 50s with rusty skills". The judge was of the view that PM had "very substantially larger earning capacity into the future".

When PM complained about JM's extravagance in relation to her 50th birthday party, the judge said that JN was "probably in need of emotional and psychological comfort" during her own spending sprees. With the family's assets severely depleted, the judge said, "It is self-evident that not all the needs of the parties could possibly be met in full, or even substantially, from the available resources, so the parties expectations have to be scaled down. Some of their needs will have to be prioritised over others. The priority must be given, in my judgment, to the housing of the wife and children."

 

Non-payment of maintenance

 

There were apparently other court actions between the parties, including a claim for maintenance that resulted in a court order in which PM neglected to pay. The arrears of maintenance amounted to £77,000, and with PM being ordered to also pay those arrears from his share of the family's assets, the net result was that there was still outstanding maintenance. In the maintenance case, the judge said that PM had had enough money to pay maintenance but chose to spend that money on himself.

PM, who could face imprisonment if he fails to pay the balance of the maintenance arrears, has appealed both rulings.

In this case, JM's sacrifice was not in vain. However, that will not always be true for housewives who are forced to re-enter the work world many years after making the choice to stay home and raise a family.

• Sherry Ann McGregor is a partner and mediator in the firm of Nunes Scholefield DeLeon & Co. Please send questions and comments to lawsofeve@gmail.com or lifestyle@gleanerjm.com.