Can a wife claim maintenance from her husband when she lives with another man?
The Supreme court of appeal recently gave an interesting judgement in the matter of Harlech-Jones v Harlech-Jones  ZASCA 19. The question raised in this matter was inter alia whether it would be against public policy for a man to pay maintenance to his wife while she is living with another man.
The appellant appealed against an order obliging him to pay R2 000 per month to his wife of almost 29 years, upon dissolution of their marriage. His principal objection against the order lied in the fact that for some eight years prior to the divorce his wife had been cohabiting with another man. This, the husband contended, disentitled her from receiving maintenance from him.
The parties were married out of community of property in December 1972. Two sons, both majors and self-supporting, were born from their marriage. After 28 years of marriage, the husband left the matrimonial home in Port Elizabeth as he had formed a relationship with another woman and had decided on a new life. He purchased another residence in the city, but his new relationship also failed and within six months he had formed an intimate relationship with another man with whom he had cohabitated.
The wife was friendly with a married couple, whom she had come to know some years previously when their sons attended the same school. Shortly after the husband had moved out of the common home, the friend’s wife passed away. When her husband was already cohabiting with his male partner a relationship began to blossom between the wife and her new partner. With the passage of time the relationship became more intimate and the wife moved into the home and bedroom of her new partner, and they thereafter cohabited as man and wife. During the first two years that they had lived together the wife’s youngest son, lived with them as well.
Although the evidence established that when the wife initially moved in with her partner it was regarded as a temporary arrangement, the relationship between them matured over the almost eight years that they had lived together before the trial. By then they both regarded their relationship as permanent and neither had any intention of terminating it. The wife’s partner supported her unconditionally and was prepared to continue to do so indefinitely. By the same token, not only was the wife being maintained by him but she, reciprocally, assisted him in his business, for which he paid her a small gratuity.
Relying upon judgments such as Dodo v Dodo 1990 (2) SA 77 (W) at 89G; Carstens v Carstens 1985 (2) SA 351 (SE) at 353F; SP v HP 2009 (5) SA 223 (O) para10 it was argued, both in the high court and in the appellant’s heads of argument, that it would be against public policy for a woman to be supported by two men at the same time. The court was of the opinion that while there are no doubt members of society who would endorse that view, it rather speaks of values from times past and the court was of the opinion that in the modern, more liberal (‘enlightened’) age in which we live, public policy demands that a person who cohabits with another should for that reason alone be barred from claiming maintenance from his or her spouse. Each case must be determined by its own facts,and counsel for the husband did not persuade the court to accept that the mere fact that the wife was living with her new partner operated as an automatic bar to her recovering maintenance from the husband.
Under the common law, the reciprocal duty of support existing between spouses, of which the provision of maintenance is an integral part, terminates upon divorce. This might well cause great hardship and inequity particularly where one spouse, during the subsistence of the marriage, has been unable to build up an estate and has reached an age where he or she is unable to realistically earn an adequate income ─ the classical case being that of a woman who has spent what would otherwise have been her active economic years caring for children and running the joint household. This potentially iniquitous situation is alleviated by s 7 of the Divorce Act 70 of 1979. Section 7(1) which provides for a court on granting a decree of divorce to make a written agreement between the parties in regard to the payment of maintenance by one party to another an order of court ─ while in other cases s 7(2) provides:
‘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 in so far 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.’
It is trite that the person claiming maintenance must establish a need to be supported. If no such need is established, it would not be ‘just’ as required by this section for a maintenance order to be issued. It is on this issue that the wife’s claim failed. Both she and the husband had moved on with their respective lives and had formed intimate and lasting relationships with others.
The wife was therefore being fully maintained by her new partner in life, and had no need for that maintenance to be supplemented in any way. Accordingly, the respondent’s claimed failed at the first hurdle as she failed to show that she actually required maintenance from the husband.