Is a husband obliged to pay maintenance when his wife lives with another man?
A recent judgment concerned the issue whether a husband is obliged to pay maintenance to his former wife, who is involved in a relationship with another man, after divorce. The plaintiff issued summons against the defendant, her husband, during 2003, for a decree of divorce, maintenance for herself and their son and ancillary relief.
The parties had not lived together as man and wife for a continuous period of at least two years prior to the date of the institution of the divorce action. In terms of the provision of s 4(2)(a) of the Divorce Act 70 of 1979 (the Divorce Act), this is proof of the irretrievable break-down of the marriage. The remaining issues were whether the plaintiff is entitled to maintenance, and if so, what such maintenance should be. The defendant’s case in respect of the plaintiff’s entitlement to maintenance was that it is against public policy that a woman should be supported by two men.
The maintenance post-divorce Section 7(1) and (2) of the Act sets out when a court may order the payment of maintenance and the factors that should be taken into account when making such determination.
It provides as follows:
‘7(1) A Court granting a decree of divorce may in accordance with a written agreement between the parties make an order with regard to the division of the assets of the parties or the payment of maintenance by the one party to the other.
(2) In the absence of an order made in terms of subsection (1) with regard to the payment of maintenance by the one party to the other, the Court may, having regard to the existing or prospective means of each of the parties, their respective earning capacities, financial needs and obligations, the age of each of the parties, the duration of the marriage, the standard of living of the parties prior to the divorce, their conduct insofar as it may be relevant to the break-down of the marriage, an order in terms of subsection (3) and any other factor which in the opinion of the court should be taken into account, make an order which the court finds just in respect of the payment of maintenance by the one party to the other for any period until the death or remarriage of the party in whose favour the order is given, whichever event may first occur.’
Through a long line of cases dealing exclusively with maintenance pendente lite, it has become customary not to award maintenance to a spouse who is living in a permanent relationship with another.
In Drummond v Drummond the Appellate Division agreed with the definition of the phrase ‘living as husband and wife’ as stated by the full bench. The parties agreed that the husband would pay maintenance towards the wife and that maintenance would ‘cease should the plaintiff prove that the defendant was living as man and wife with a third person on a permanent basis’. The said phrase has the following meaning: ‘. . . the main components of a modus vivendi akin to that of husband and wife are, firstly, living under the same roof, secondly, establishing, maintaining and contributing to a joint household, and thirdly maintaining an intimate relationship.’ The plaintiff and S clearly live together as husband and wife according to the said definition.
In Cohen v Cohen the parties determined in a deed of settlement that the maintenance payable by the plaintiff (the husband) would cease if the defendant lived with another man as husband and wife for a certain specified period. This order was varied by a maintenance court in respect of the amounts the husband had to pay towards maintenance. In the maintenance court’s order the condition in respect of the cohabitation was left out. In a subsequent action it was decided that, where the magistrate had left out the said clause, the condition was no longer enforceable as it had been substituted by the maintenance court.
In Carstens v Carstens the wife claimed maintenance pendente lite in a rule 43 application while she lived with another man as husband and wife. Mullins J found: ‘It is in my view against public policy that a woman should be entitled to claim maintenance pendente lite from her husband when she is flagrantly and deliberately living as man and wife with another man. Not only is applicant in the present case living in adultery, but she and her lover are maintaining a joint household complete with the addition of an adulterine child. She has by her conduct accepted the support of Clarkson in lieu of that of her husband. The fact that Clarkson is unable to support her to the extent that she may have been accustomed in her matrimonial home with respondent does not appear to me to affect the position.’
In SP v HP (another rule 43 application) it was found, on the strength of Carstens, that ‘(t)he objection is not so much about the moral turpitude attaching to the illicit cohabitation, but more about the notion of a woman being supported by two men at the same time’.
In the unreported judgment of Qonqo v Qonqo dealing with a rule 43 application for maintenance pendente lite, the court, in spite of the fact that the applicant cohabited with her lover, ordered the respondent to pay maintenance pendente lite. The reason for ordering the payment of maintenance was that there was no proof that the lover supported the applicant in that instance.
It is also clear from the wording of s 7(2) of the Divorce Act that the legislature did not determine that maintenance should cease when the person receiving the maintenance is in a relationship akin to a marriage but only on remarriage. It is usually by way of an agreement between the parties that the additional condition relating to the cessation of payment of maintenance on the cohabitation with a third party is added.
Marriage entails that the parties establish and ‘maintain an intimate relationship for the rest of their lives which they acknowledge obliges them to support one another, to live together and to be faithful to one another’. One of the effects of marriage is the reciprocal duty of support. This duty of support does not exist, in circumstances such as these, if there is no marriage.
In Volks NO v Robinson and Others the proceedings had been initiated by Mrs Robinson who had been a partner in a permanent life partnership with Mr Shandling for a period of 16 years until his death in 2001. The couple had not been married, although there was no legal obstacle to their marriage. Following the death of Shandling, Robinson submitted a claim for maintenance against his deceased estate. The executor of the estate, Volks, rejected her claim because she was not ‘a survivor’ as contemplated by the Act. Skweyiya J said at paras 55 – 56: ‘Mrs Robinson never married the late Mr Shandling. There is a fundamental difference between her position and spouses or survivors who are predeceased by their husbands. Her relationship with Mr Shandling is one in which each was free to continue or not, and from which each was free to withdraw at will, without obligation and without legal or other formalities. There are a wide range of legal privileges and obligations that are triggered by the contract of marriage. In a marriage the spouse’s rights are largely fixed by law and not by agreement, unlike in the case of parties who cohabit without being married. The distinction between married and unmarried people cannot be said to be unfair when considered in the larger context of the rights and obligations uniquely attached to marriage. Whilst there is a reciprocal duty of support between married persons, no duty of support arises by operation of law in the case of unmarried cohabitants. The maintenance benefit in section 2(1) of the Act falls within the scope of the maintenance support obligation attached to marriage. The Act applies to persons in respect of whom the deceased person (spouse) would have remained legally liable for maintenance, by operation of law, had he or she not died.’
If regard is had to the decision of Cohen, that it cannot be read into s 7(2) of the Act that the maintenance will cease when the recipient of the maintenance lives as husband and wife with another, as an express agreement to that effect can be amended by the maintenance court. Having regard to the factors that should be taken into account when determining whether the defendant ought to pay maintenance for the plaintiff, in terms of s 7(2) of the Act, the factors mentioned are not exclusive.
When taking into consideration the factors mentioned in s 7(2) of the Act to determine whether the defendant is liable to pay maintenance the following emerge:
(a) The existing and prospective means of each of the parties and the parties’ respective earning capacities.
(b) The financial needs and obligations of the parties. It is clear that neither of the parties can live lavishly, but they are not destitute.
(c) The age of the parties.
(d) The duration of the marriage.
(e) The standard of living of the parties prior to the divorce.
(f) The conduct of the defendant insofar as it may be relevant to the breakdown of the marriage.
The facts of this matter differed materially from Carstens; SP v HP; and Qonqo. It is immaterial whether the defendant was unable to support the plaintiff and their son, or whether he was merely unwilling to do so. Other legislation also makes it clear that the legislature envisaged that a man can be supported by two women. In terms of the provisions s 8(4) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998, a court dissolving a customary marriage has the powers contemplated in ss 7, 8, 9 and 10 of the Act. This has the effect that with polygamous customary marriages a husband will have the right to be supported by more than one wife, post-divorce, if circumstances demand it. Although it might have been a concept that was unacceptable in a previous dispensation, the concept is not unacceptable today. The court was of of the opinion that in the circumstances of this case it could not be said that it is against public policy that the defendant should be liable to pay maintenance to the plaintiff; there is no legislative prohibition and the court found that there was no general public policy to that effect or moral prohibition.