When I read that an 83 year old had been jailed for 14 months I assumed that he had been sent to prison for a very serious criminal offence. Reading on I learnt that the businessman had been incarcerated for breaching a family financial Court order.
The case of Mr and Mrs Hart highlights that family law judges do have the power to enforce financial Court orders although it remains very rare for a family Court to jail a husband or wife for contempt of Court.
What led to the incarceration? In 2015 Mr and Hart got divorced and Mr Hart was ordered to pay his ex-wife 3.5 million of the couple’s reported assets of 9 million. The Court order involved the transfer of shares in a property company from the ex-husband to his ex-wife. Mrs Hart complained that her ex-husband had breached the financial Court order and she wasn’t able, as a result of Mr Hart’s actions, to run the property company. Those difficulties led to an application by Mrs Hart for Mr Hart’s committal to prison for contempt of Court. When sentencing Mr Hart to custody the judge highlighted the attempts made by Mrs Hart and her lawyers to avoid pursuing the committal application but ultimately, in the judge’s view, there was no option other than a prison sentence to ensure the original financial Court order would be complied with.
Can all financial Court orders be enforced? A lot depends on the precise wording of the Court order. That is why, in my opinion it is vital to make sure that Court orders are written in a way that if either a husband or wife doesn’t comply with what they were ordered to do that the Court order can be enforced. In some situations it is important to anticipate difficulties and to therefore make sure that the family finance Court order gives a tight deadline for the transfer of property, or sets out exactly how a family home will be sold (for example recording the mechanism for agreeing the sale price and the choice of estate agent) and, where possible, providing for the sale of an asset if a transfer of property doesn’t take place by the Court imposed date.
The other important thing to bear in mind is to try and keep financial Court orders as straightforward as possible, subject to the nature of the family assets. Sometimes an ex-husband and wife want to continue to co-own a property or a company together after a divorce but that type of financial settlement, even if incorporated into a Court order, can lead to difficulties and enforcement applications. That is why if there is a simple financial solution the family Courts often prefer that type of Court order to achieve closure and avoid the cost of bringing enforcement action.
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Can financial orders be varied? If a family judge has made a final financial order then normally most aspects of the order can’t be changed save for the amount of any spousal maintenance. However depending on the precise wording of the order the Court could be asked to extend time to make a payment or to change how a property is sold. That is why it is important to get specialist legal advice when sorting out a financial agreement so that both an ex-husband and ex-wife know where they stand if they want to vary the financial Court order or they need the order to be enforced.
For advice on enforcing family financial Court orders or to discuss divorce financial settlement options please contact us.