Can a maintenance order be varied where the parties agreed in a settlement agreement that maintenance will not be subject to variation?
It frequently happens that parties include a clause in a Divorce Settlement Agreement that neither party shall have the right, after divorce, to approach the maintenance court for a variation of the spousal maintenance. Effectively this means that the maintenance may not be increased or decreased.
According to section 8 of the Divorce Act, 70 of 1979 a maintenance order, made in terms of this Act, may at any time be rescinded or varied or, in the case of a maintenance order or an order with regard to access to a child, be suspended by a court if the court finds that there is sufficient reason. The Maintenance Act 99 of 1998 (“the Act”) provides at section 6 as follows:
“6 Complaints relating to maintenance
(1) Whenever a complaint to the effect-
(b) that good cause exists for the substitution or discharge of a maintenance order; or
has been made and is lodged with a maintenance officer in the prescribed manner, the maintenance officer shall investigate that complaint in the prescribed manner and as provided in this Act”.
The Act further provides at section 16(1) as follows:
16 Maintenance and ancillary orders
(a) in the case where no maintenance order is in force--
(i) make a maintenance order against any person proved to be legally liable to maintain any other person for the payment during such period and at such times and to such person, officer, organisation or institution, or into such account at such financial institution, and in such manner, which manner may include that an arrangement be made with any financial institution for payment by way of any stop-order or similar facility at that financial institution, as may be specified in the order, of sums of money so specified, towards the maintenance of such other person, which order may include such order as the court may think fit relating to the payment of medical expenses in respect of such other person, including an order requiring such other person, if the said other person qualifies therefor, to be registered as a dependent of such person at a medical scheme of which such person is a member;
(b) in the case where a maintenance order is in force--
(i) make a maintenance order contemplated in paragraph (a) (i) in substitution of such maintenance order; or
(ii) discharge such maintenance order; or
(c) make no order.
In terms of section 6(1) of the Maintenance Act, a maintenance order (whether in terms of a consent agreement or not) may be varied or discharged if a complainant can demonstrate “good cause” therefore.
In Odgers v De Gersigny  the Supreme Court of Appeal held that where parties have agreed in a consent agreement that the ex-wife shall be maintained for x amount of years and the agreement makes no mention of remarriage or death, the ex-husband will have to continue paying the maintenance if the ex-wife married before the time ran out, as a consent agreement is contractual in nature and parties will be held to their bargain. However, it should be noted that this case was concerned with the interpretation of a consent agreement and not with whether there existed “good cause” to set the consent agreement aside.
In Georghiades v Janse van Rensburg  the court held:
“Generally speaking, our courts except that circumstances must have changed substantially and that it would be unfair to allow the order to stand in its original form before rescission, variation or suspension of an existing maintenance order will be granted. In Havenga v Havenga, Harms J, pointed out that, although, in general, they will not be sufficient reason for the variation or rescission of a maintenance order in the absence of a real change in circumstances, changed circumstances are not a statutory prerequisite and they may sometimes be sufficient reason although circumstances have not changed”.
The validity of a waiver of the right to apply for the rescission, variation or suspension of a maintenance order was for long controversial, the essence of the debate being whether such a waiver was contrary to public policy. Those who have argued that it was, considered the waiver to be undesirable in that it deprived the court of its jurisdiction to rescind, suspend or vary the order. Those who took the opposite view stressed freedom of contract.
The cases of Knight  Gawith  Cillier  and Claasens  concerned agreements between divorcing parties in which one party only waived the right to variation.In Gawith and Claasens such waivers were found to be valid; in Cilliers the waiver was found to conflict with legislation then in force; in Knight Corbett J expressed grave doubts about the correctness of decisions in which such waivers had been held to be valid but considered himself bound by the previous decisions to that effect in his division. He nevertheless found the relevant clause to be undesirable on other grounds.
As a general rule a maintenance order made in terms of the Divorce Act may at any time be rescinded, varied or suspended by a court if the court finds that there is sufficient reason to do so, see Reid v Reid. The application for variation may also be to extend or shorten the period during which maintenance is payable.
In Georghiades Griesel J said as follows:
“ Section 8 of the Act creates an exception to the general rule that an order of court, once pronounced, is final and immutable. It permits the Court, for 'sufficient reason', to rescind, vary or suspend a maintenance order granted earlier. This provision was introduced so as to authorise the Court to amend maintenance orders on good cause shown, so as to enable spouses to come to Court 'to redress injustices occasioned by a maintenance order which no longer fits the changed circumstances'.”
The learned Judge went on to state that each case must be decided on its merits and, referring to case law, drew a distinction between cases relating to a fixed amount payable till death or remarriage and cases where maintenance was payable for a limited period. In this regard the following was stated:
“ Counsel also relied on the cases of Girdwood v Girdwood , Davis v Davis  and Hoal v Hoal . Comparisons were made, inter alia, between relevant clauses of the consent papers in those matters and those of the consent paper in the present matter. In this regard it bears repetition that limited assistance can be obtained from considering the terms of agreements which featured in other cases and that each case must be decided on its own facts".
In Bond v Bond  the court was asked to vary a consent order incorporated in the divorce decree regulating the parties' divorce, the court in the present inquiry, focused on the interpretation of one of the clauses (relating to maintenance) in the order. The respondent contended that the applicant was precluded from obtaining a variation of the consent paper. The court held that a basic principle of interpretation is that a court will always first look to the wording of the terms that had been agreed upon by the parties, and will as far as possible give the language used by the parties its ordinary grammatical meaning. The only circumstances where this situation will be deviated from, is when it leads to inconsistency, repugnancy or an outcome contrary to public policy. Once the literal meaning has been ascertained, then regard must be had to the context in which a word or phrase is used. Regard must also be had to the nature and purpose of the contract. In doing so, the common intention of the parties at the time of concluding the consent paper must be ascertained according to the above mentioned cannons of construction. In this case, the respondent undertook to maintain the applicant "until her death, remarriage or cohabitation in a relationship akin to that of marriage". That was what would constitute the "maintenance period". There was no automatic termination of the maintenance, unless one of those events occurred. In terms of section 8(1) of the Divorce Act 70 of 1979, a maintenance order may be rescinded, varied or suspended at any time if the court finds that there is sufficient reason therefore. The only limitation on the court's power to rescind or vary a maintenance order, is that "sufficient reason" must be shown. The court concluded that the applicant was entitled to apply for an increase as she had.
In Girdwood, supra, the court held that in the case of waiver of a spouse’s right to claim variation of maintenance after divorce, there would have to be a clear indication in the settlement agreement that the spouse was fully aware of the statutory right to claim variation, and that he or she expressly or by his or her conduct waived that right.
In the case of Barkhuizen v Napier  the Constitutional Court found that the proper approach to the constitutional challenges to contractual terms was to determine whether the term challenged was contrary to public policy as evidenced by the constitutional values, in particular, those found in the Bill of Rights. This approach left space for the doctrine of pacta sunt servanda to operate, but at the same time allowed courts to decline to enforce contractual terms that were in conflict with the constitutional values even though the parties might have consented to them.
In the case of Schutte  the Supreme Court of Appeal found that a clause in a settlement agreement that prohibited the parties to approach a court to vary maintenance was not against public policy.
It goes without saying that a non-variation clause may have bizarre consequences for the parties. For example, where a husband becomes unemployed or is sequestrated after a divorce his dilemma will be that he will not be able to approach the maintenance court for a reduction of his maintenance obligations. This in itself can be viewed as against public policy.
It is clear that the court will always be able vary a maintenance order when there is sufficient reason to do so. Although a settlement agreement is contractual in nature it may be argued that since it is impossible to foresee the future circumstances of the parties considerations of fairness and justice should be applied. With that in mind it is submitted that in special circumstances a courts' jurisdiction should not be ousted to vary a maintenance order that simply does not fit in with reality. Settlement agreements are not agreements that are cast in stone. For example, a settlement agreement may deal with the care and contact arrangements of the children and stipulates how contact between the parents and the children should be exercised. As children grow older the essence of the contact also changes as the circumstances evolve, the same can be said of maintenance.
 2007 (2) SA 305 (SCA) at p309
 2007 (3) SA 18 (C) at para 
 1967 1 SA 40 (C)
 1966 3 SA 596 (C)
 1977 1 SA 561 (O)
 1988 4 SA 163 (W)
 Reid v Reid 1991 (1) SA 443 (E)
 At para 13 at page 22
 At para 26 at pages 26 G to 27 C
 Girdwood v Girdwood 1995 (4) SA 698 (C) at 708B
 Davis v Davis 1993 (1) SA 621 (C)
 2002 (3) SA 209 (N) the court also held that if the parties do not specifically exclude their right to invoke section 8(1) of the Divorce Act 70 of 1979, either of them can seek variation of the arrangements regarding maintenance, care or contact they agreed upon in their settlement agreement
  JOL 23915 (C)
 2007 (7) BCLR 691 (CC)
 1986 (2) All SA 70 (SCA)
Compiled by: Bertus Preller - Family Law Attorney
Bertus Preller & Associates Inc.
Ground Level, The Chambers, 50 Keerom Street, Cape Town, 8000
Telephone: +27 21 422-2461 or +27 21 422-2573 or +27 21 422-2597
Facsimile: +27 086 572 8373
Content provided by Bertus Preller Family Law Attorney at Maurice Phillips Wisenberg
Cases and Articles on Divorce Law and Family Law in the SA courts.
Legal news and case law in the South African courts, compiled by Family Law attorney, Bertus Preller.
Bertus Preller is a Family Law and Divorce Law Attorney in Cape Town.