Consent Orders: HAT v LAT – A Word of Warning

A consent order is a court order (agreed by consent) that details the financial agreement reached between you and your spouse on divorce. You and your spouse agree the terms between you, usually with the help of your lawyers. This is then sent to court and reviewed by a judge. If the judge is satisfied that the terms of the agreement are fair and reasonable then they approve it; it is then a binding and enforceable court order. 

It is common practice to finalise a consent order and have it approved by the court before you finalise the divorce itself. This is because there are certain benefits to you remaining as someone’s spouse until the consent order is finalised i.e. receiving pension rights or property if your spouse were to die.

If you finalise your divorce but you do not have a consent order, the financial claims you can each make against the other (as a result of having been married) remain active. So, even though you are divorced (i.e. the court granting a Decree Absolute or Final Order) it is still possible for you (or your ex-spouse) to make financial claims against the other until this is terminated by the formalities of a consent order.

The recent judgment in HAT v LAT [2023] EWFC 162 illustrates the pitfalls of not finalising a consent order. In this case, the husband and wife married in 1984 and divorced in 1993. They had been divorced for over 25 years when the wife issued an application for spousal maintenance and payment of her legal fees.

The parties had a high standard of living during their marriage and did not have any children. The husband had a successful career and had founded a company in the 1990s that was subsequently sold for £314 million. In 1994, the parties entered into a Deed of Separation (which purported to conclude all financial matters). The agreement was that the husband would pay the wife £702,000 and that there would be a ‘clean break’ i.e. no maintenance paid. Whilst the husband recalled the agreement being drawn up into a consent order, he had no evidence of this. The court therefore had to proceed on the basis no consent order existed. In those circumstances, the wife was entitled to make her application for maintenance.

Despite the payment of £702,000 and the terms of the Deed of Separation, the husband also provided a loan of £2.1 million to the wife in 2009 to help her buy a property in London. The husband also provided other financial support to the wife over the course of the next 10 years – paying for utilities, a car, educational courses, BUPA cover and a monthly allowance. 

In 2022, the husband told the wife he would cease all payments and that the London property should be sold. He reduced the monthly allowance considerably and then eventually stopped paying all together. The husband’s position was that the wife should be held to the terms of the Deed of Separation and receive no further financial provision.

The judgment was only an interim decision (meaning the final outcome of the case is still to be determined). However, in was made clear that whilst it was highly unusual for a claim to be made so long after the divorce (29 years in this case), this was mitigated by the Deed of Separation and that the husband had continued to provide financial support to the wife after their divorce. The judge ultimately concluded that a delay of this length was not a bar to making a claim and it would not automatically prevent an application for financial relief. It would, however, be a factor the court takes into consideration.

Whilst the facts of this case are quite unusual, the judgment highlights that until financial claims are extinguished by a court order then it remains possible to makes claims against an ex-spouse irrespective of how long you have been divorced. It is therefore common sense to have a consent order drawn up in every case to protect yourself from claims many years down the line.  

If you are divorced and do not have a consent order or need some advice about how to put one in place contact our family law specialists for a free 45-minute consultation.

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