Lucinda Connell, Senior Solicitor at Major Family Law, North East’s Divorce and Family Law Specialists, comments in the Northern Insight this month much has been reported in the press of late about our ever increasing life expectancy, with the Office for National statistics recently launching a life expectancy calculator showing the person’s chance of living to the grand old age of 100!  With this in mind it’s likely therefore that for most of us the idea of death, or indeed making appropriate financial provision for our own, is just too remote.

That said, the question of life expectancy is something that regularly features in the calculations of family lawyers when looking at financial settlements for couples going through divorce proceedings. By way of example, when considering whether a spouse is entitled to ongoing spousal maintenance central two aspects are considered; the amount of maintenance as well as the term or duration over which the maintenance is to be paid.  Actuarial tables are often used based on the recipient’s life expectancy to enable divorce lawyers to work out the appropriate sum.

There are occasions, however, where a reduced life expectancy can present itself in family law proceedings.  These cases provide obvious challenges. The recent case of M v M [2015] questioned what impact a potentially substantial reduction in a party’s life expectancy would have on financial remedy proceedings.  It was this issue that was at the very core of the case.  The Husband and Wife had separated after a 22 year marriage by which time their only daughter was independent.  They commenced divorce proceedings five years after their separation at which point the wife issued an application to the court for financial relief.  A year prior to final hearing the wife was tragically diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  In view of this the court focused on two main issues:

1 To what extent, if any, should the husband pay a lump sum to the wife?
2 How should the court deal with the parties, at the end of their pension entitlements?

The case was transferred to HHJ Wildblood KC as it was feared that the wife’s cancer would have a significant impact on the outcome: If the wife were at the point of death, then this would be relevant as to how the assets, in particular the pension assets, would be divided and how the court should employ the range of orders available to it. However, by the time of the final hearing, the evidence suggested that the wife was not as close to death as previously feared.

The Judge was largely disinterested in the medical survival tables that had been provided looking at the life expectancy of the wife based on median survival rates commenting, “Her life expectancy cannot be treated as fixed by findings based on the balance of actuarial or medical probability. No sensible person would run their personal finances on that basis.  Findings about life expectancy based on median figures would be even more unsatisfactory and unjust; that approach could result very significantly to Mrs M’s detriment within these proceedings”.

The outcome of the case was that the Wife’s prognosis did not significantly change the way in which the court dealt with the financial arrangements following the breakdown of the marriage.  It would seem therefore that where a spouse has built up an entitlement to a share in the matrimonial assets accumulated throughout a lengthy marriage, then there should be no reason why such entitlement should be reduced should news come to light of a serious medical diagnosis.

Should you, a friend or family member be in a similar, difficult situation, please contact us in confidence.
Lucinda Connell is a Senior Solicitor at Major Family Law, the Divorce and Family Law Specialists, 12 West Road, Ponteland, Newcastle upon Tyne.   T: 01661 82 45 82 Twitter: @majorfamilylaw