Farmer must pay ‘industrious’ estranged wife €1,600 in monthly maintenance

Judge says High Court overestimated likelihood of woman becoming self-sufficient in four years

The Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge gave insufficient weight to the contribution of the ‘hardworking and industrious’ wife, who could milk 100 cows on her own, to the success of the farm during the marriage. Image: iStock.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge gave insufficient weight to the contribution of the ‘hardworking and industrious’ wife, who could milk 100 cows on her own, to the success of the farm during the marriage. Image: iStock.

 

A separated farmer whose farm was valued at some €1.1 million four years ago must pay his estranged wife €1,600 in spousal maintenance a month, to be reduced when she is entitled to pension payments, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

A High Court order for €800 in monthly spousal maintenance for four years only was “so deficient” in amount and duration as to be incapable of constituting proper provision for the woman, resulting in an unfair outcome for her on the facts of the case, Ms Justice Máire Whelan held. She also directed that the man must pay for the woman’s private health insurance.

The woman, a mother of three who was married to the man for more than 20 years, appealed aspects of High Court orders made by Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds in 2017 in judicial separation proceedings.

At the conclusion of the three-judge appeal court’s judgment on Tuesday allowing the appeal, Ms Justice Whelan noted that while the High Court clearly found the wife was entitled to a lump sum of €120,000, her legal costs came to some €75,000 and the money has been spent.

These proceedings might “more prudently” have been instigated in the Circuit Court, the judge remarked.

She proposed that the man pay a €10,000 contribution towards the legal costs of the woman’s appeal. If he disagrees, his lawyers have two weeks to seek an alternative costs order.

The appeal concerned the amount and duration of the €800 monthly spousal maintenance and a four year limit on the man paying the woman’s private health insurance payments. The man and the woman are in their 50s.

Sole benefit

There was no appeal over other High Court orders requiring him to pay a €120,000 lump sum payment for the woman’s sole benefit; €1,200 monthly maintenance for the children until their dependency ceased, which it has; their educational costs, including third level costs and their private health insurance; and to transfer his entire €55,000 pensions to her.

Their three children, now young adults, one with special needs, were “dependent” in 2017 within the meaning of the Family Law Act 1995.

The farm and farmlands, with an agreed valuation of some €1.1 million in 2017, are held mortgage free in the man’s sole name. The farm was transferred to him by his father, he works it full time with €100,000 gross income potential, and said he intended to maintain it for the children and to provide for the future.

The woman completed her Leaving Cert and was employed prior to her marriage. During the marriage, she did farm work as well as being a full-time homemaker and doing sporadic paid work.

The couple separated in 2014 and the woman and children remained in the family home for a time with the husband living nearby. She secured a safety order in March 2015 which expired two years later.

In May 2015, he gave her a €200,000 lump sum, obtained via loans from his family, to buy a new home where she and the children now live. It is held in her sole name and mortgage free.

Significant share

In opposing her appeal, he argued his wife had obtained a very significant share of the available capital and had been provided with €224,000 in capital payments

Ms Justice Whelan found the High Court erred in adopting the husband’s analysis that the High Court orders constituted provision for the wife in excess of 30 per cent of the net assets available and was a “fair and equitable” distribution of the assets.

The High Court also erred in “significantly overestimating” the future likelihood of the wife, given her age, employment history and lack of qualifications, earning an income and being self-employed and self-sufficient within four years.

The trial judge further erred in giving insufficient weight to the significant contribution of the “hardworking and industrious” wife, who could milk 100 cows on her own, to the success of the farm during the marriage, she held.

The fact the husband owes €130,000 to his father arising from the €200,000 payment for the wife’s house was not a factor to justify setting the spousal maintenance at €800 monthly, she further held.

The High Court also erred in considering possible additional social welfare benefits for the youngest child in the future as any such payment was that child’s and could not be treated as the wife’s income for maintenance purposes, she added.