The High Court judgment means financial settlements in divorce cases can be re-negotiated at any time and also means ex-partners are liable for maintenance even after they die.
Last night, legal experts said the ruling creates a new precedent in Irish divorce law, obliging ex-partners to support their former spouses for life, making full and final agreements impossible.
“In the past it was suggested that the opportunity for further provision in a divorce settlement ended with the granting of the decree of divorce,” said family law expert and solicitor Geoffrey Shannon. “This case suggests that this might not necessarily be the position. This means parties in divorce cases can effectively get another bite of the cherry after their divorce and it will send shivers down the spine of those who think their settlements are final.”
The case centres on a pair, who cannot be named for legal reasons, who married in 1979, had five children and divorced in 2000. At the time of their divorce, the court ordered the businessman husband to pay £48,500 a year to his wife and children. The settlement was based on his wealth at the time of the divorce but after the split he sold his business and became richer. The High Court ruled the man must pay his wife a one-off lump sum of €2m to reflect this increase.
Previously, parties in marriage breakdowns could come to a financial settlement at the first stage of splitting up — the decree of judicial separation — or the final step called a decree of divorce. The agreement made at the time of a decree of divorce was thought to be final but the High Court has now said settlements can be re-negotiated as ex-partners have an obligation to support their spouses for life.
Mr Shannon, whose book on 10 years of Irish divorce law comes out this year, said the ruling would benefit ex-wives struggling to support their families. “What you are looking at is divorce Irish-style and it’s different from the reality in other jurisdictions because we have a life-long spousal support obligation,” said Mr Shannon.
Irish Examiner 18 May 2007