I’m NOT a GOLD DIGGER
Vilified as a cold, cunning chancer for winning an increase in maintenance 15 years after her divorce, Maria blasts back, saying it’s all her ex’s fault and insisting...
WHEN a victorious Maria Mills emerged on to the steps of the High Court a few days ago, it was with a face wreathed in smiles. Some 15 years after her divorce, and with her son now fully grown, the businesswoman had found herself in a quite unexpected position – and, to some at least, a rather controversial one.
For rather than reducing the monthly maintenance payments she received, the judges had elected to actually increase them – and by nearly a third.
The verdict, thought to be unprecedented, has been described in some quarters as a step forward for women everywhere – welcome evidence that a divorce settlement from long ago need not be a financial straitjacket for life.
Yet elsewhere, the response has been less sympathetic. Indeed, for the past few days Mrs Mills has found herself vilified by men and women, variously described as a gold-digging divorcee and a wily ex-wife who squandered her financial settlement through a series of bad property investments who then had the effrontery to come begging for more.
Her ex-husband Graham is certainly no fan of the ruling. Angrily describing her maintenance payments as ‘a meal ticket for life’, he may yet take the ‘unfair’ decision to the Supreme Court, demanding they be stopped altogether.
Throughout their long, two-year battle, Mrs Mills, 51, has maintained a dignified silence. Today, however, in the face of what she terms as a torrent of abuse and misrepresentation, she feels compelled to defend the judgment, and explain to the doubters just why she and other women like her deserve the additional payments.
She says she worked tirelessly to support her ex-husband financially during the early years of their marriage and later worked just as hard to bring up their only son singlehandedly, despite ill health.
She reveals too – and this is perhaps the greatest irony – that it was, in fact, her husband who brought the initial court action, seeking to reduce his maintenance payments so that he could spend more money on his new wife and child. She had no wish to go to court. Yet so overwhelming was her case that the judge agreed to actually increase the financial support to her.
She says: ‘I feel like I have been through a character assassination, both at the hands of my ex-husband and the public.
‘They’ve said I’m a gold digger. It’s not true. I’m nothing of the sort.
‘The past two years of fighting my ex-husband have been incredibly stressful and have taken their toll on me physically and emotionally.
‘It has affected my family, my personal life and my business. So many times I have felt bullied by my ex-husband.
‘It seems to me he thinks he is above the law. But he is not. Just as I am not.
‘I genuinely believe women get the rough end of the stick after divorce. They have to juggle working and bringing up the family. Whereas men can just focus on themselves and their career.’
Looking at the couple’s happy wedding photos today, it is hard to imagine things could have taken such a bitter turn.
Maria is a warm, articulate woman who was already established as a businesswoman when she met Graham Mills, who was still a struggling student. Then 21, she ran a beauty clinic and was earning up to £700 a week while he was studying to be a surveyor at Guildford Technical College. He moved into her apartment within three months and, Mrs Mills says, she paid all the bills without a second thought. At the time his income amounted to £35 a week. ‘It didn’t bother me as I felt he was starting off his career,’ she says.
They married in 1988 and she gave birth to a son. But rather than her giving up working, the couple set up a joint company which named them both as directors, each owning 50 per cent. This was the successful surveying company he still runs today.
‘I could see Graham was trying to build a career and I was happy to support him,’ she says. ‘It was me who found the commercial property, me who dealt with the staff and built the business. And it was certainly me who paid for everything.’
A few years later, in 1996, serious cracks started to appear in the relationship. At 22 weeks into her second pregnancy, Maria suffered a late miscarriage, which led to complex health problems. Eventually, she was in such chronic pain that she could no longer work full time.
‘It was a traumatic time,’ she continues, and it was made worse with what she describes as Graham’s workaholic attitude and growing levels of stress.
‘I felt lonely and isolated. I got no emotional support from my husband. Not surprisingly our marriage deteriorated.’
The couple eventually separated in 2000 and two years later they divorced.
Mrs Mills was awarded a £230,000 lump sum from the sale of her home and £1,100 a month in maintenance so that she could buy a new home for herself and for their son, who was then eight.
However, she says she was asked to relinquish the stake in the company she helped build. And while it has been reported that she received all of the couple’s liquid capital, Mrs Mills says this is not true. From her point of view it was a bad settlement.
‘The truth is that my husband forced the sale of our family home,’ she says.
‘I had poor legal advice and I should never have allowed myself to let go my directorship, shares in the company, pensions and life insurance.
‘On top of that, the maintenance should have been index-linked, to allow for inflation, and it should have been extended to cover our son until the end of his full-time education.
‘At the time of our divorce my husband claimed he couldn’t afford to buy a house for himself and was renting a room. He suggested I should use £200,000 to buy a small, terraced home for me and my son.
‘Yet immediately after everything was settled he bought a £350,000 house for himself, his girlfriend and her daughter – and paid for that daughter’s upbringing from the age of eight until she was 23.’
Despite her own ill health, Mrs Mills says she worked as hard as she could and
It was never in my head to go back to Graham for more… he started all this
brought up the couple’s son alone. Now she has been left perplexed at claims made in court by her former husband that she made a series of poor business decisions: ‘Just look at the figures,’ she says emphatically. ‘In the years since my divorce I bought a home in Weybridge in Surrey in 2002 for £345,000 and sold it in 2006 for the same price. ‘I bought another in Wimbledon in 2006 for £323,000 that I sold a year later for £435,000 and I paid £520,000 for my final home in Battersea. I sold it two years later for £580,000. Do these figures look like someone who made “poor financial decisions” or “unwise” property investments? I didn’t make a loss on any of them. ‘He most certainly didn’t see me as a bad businesswoman when I helped set up our company.’ Nonetheless she found herself in financial trouble. Mrs Mills explains: ‘The recession coincided with me having to undergo surgery. That meant I couldn’t work so wasn’t earning. ‘The truth is that a whole series of problems devastated my finances. At the same time I was struggling to care for my son who had developed serious glandular fever. But even though things were so difficult it never entered my head to go back and ask Graham for more.’ Mrs Mills weathered the storm and these days runs a Mayfair ‘medispa’ called The Acculaser, offering beauty treatments. She lives with her son, a student whom she does not wish to name, in a modest rented home in Weybridge. So it came as a real shock when in 2014, a full 12 years after their divorce, Mr Mills, who runs the Technics group of land surveyors, went back to court seeking to cut or cap his payments to his exwife and son. He argued that his son was then 21 and should be independent. It cannot have helped Maria’s mood to learn that her ex was arguing that he wanted to spend more money on his second wife and their tenyear-old son, with whom he lives in Guildford. Mrs Mills countered that she had run up debts ‘over many years as a single parent in poor health’. At first the case went badly. At a hearing a year ago, a judge sided with Mr Mills, obliging Maria to contemplate an appeal against what might well have proved financial disaster. But at the Appeal Court the judges were sympathetic and ruled in her favour, increasing her payments to £1,441 and, to Mr Mills’s outrage, ordering him to support his former wife for life as she was ‘unable to meet her basic needs’.
This might not yet be the end of the matter. Angered and frustrated at the ruling, Mr Mills is calling for a mandatory time bar on such maintenance payments and is considering taking the case to the Supreme Court. Yesterday he said the legal system felt like ‘a lottery’ because of the discretion afforded to judges.
‘I don’t feel this is the right decision or a fair decision for me,’ he said.
‘My understanding is that different judges can come up with different conclusions – there is no right or wrong.’
He seems to have a great many supporters on the internet. ‘Money-grabbing leech’ is by no means the worst of the slurs thrown the way of Maria Mills.
But she remains unapologetic. ‘Despite suffering long spells of ill health, I’ve never gone to the courts seeking a penny more from Graham,’ she says.
‘It was him who initiated this court action because he wanted to reduce or axe the payments.
‘It infuriates me to think that I have worked hard all my life – before, during and after my marriage.
‘I’ve virtually brought up my son alone. I was the one who did the school trips and took time off if he was ill, with or without his father’s financial help.
‘At the time of the first hearing in 2014, Graham’s companies had cash reserves of more than £650,000 I believe and within a few years he was able to earn a very high income from them. That allowed him to invest in other high-value technical companies and likely increase his net worth.
‘As for me, I have had to borrow £25,000 from friends and family to pay my legal costs. But the law is the law and you have to respect it.’
She has not won the day, Maria Mills maintains, but justice has.
I felt bullied by my ex-husband. He seems to think he is above the law but he is not
‘UNFAIR’: Graham Mills may take his case to the Supreme Court
TOGETHER: Maria and Graham marry in 1988. Left: Maria last week