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...

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Femail - By Olga Craig

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

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