Coronavirus and spousal maintenance payments

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Family Law on Monday, January 4th, 2021

Across the UK, millions of people have been impacted financially by the coronavirus pandemic. Some lost their jobs, others were furloughed, while many parents were forced to cut their hours to focus on homeschooling and caring for their children. Others still lost money when the stock markets plummeted at the beginning of the pandemic. Business owners particularly have faced severe financial hardship, with many forced to plough their personal wealth into their business in order to survive.

For those who are under obligations to make payments such as spousal maintenance to their former partner following a divorce, this sudden dip in financial fortunes has resulted in additional pressure at an already difficult time. Family lawyers across the country are seeing an increase in cases where parties are trying to change divorce settlements due to reduced personal circumstances.

Don’t just stop paying!

If you are facing financial difficulties and are struggling to make spousal maintenance payments, ask for help before you default. Spousal maintenance is a court ordered arrangement, meaning that you could face costly and stressful enforcement proceedings from your former spouse, if they do not receive the payment to which they are entitled. You could also be liable to pay 8% interest on any arrears you owe, which could quickly add up and compound an already difficult financial situation.

The options available

Your very best option is to keep the process out of court by opening up discussions with your former spouse. With the help of an experienced negotiator, it may be possible to agree temporarily reduced payments until your financial situation has improved. This may or may not be possible depending on your relationship with your former partner, but instructing a trained lawyer to act as an intermediary will certainly improve your chances.

Should negotiations prove fruitless, you can apply to the court to review your maintenance order and reduce payments to a lower amount that you can afford to pay. It should be noted that it can be quite difficult to vary a court order, which can only be changed if there is evidence of a significant alteration to the applicant’s circumstances. Before agreeing to a change, the court may also look at any capital or alternative income you have to that will allow you to continue payments at the set rate.

Courts snowed under

Another reason why negotiation is so wholeheartedly recommended at the present time is the huge backlog of cases currently sitting with the family courts. Changes to spousal maintenance orders usually take between six to 12 months to be issued, and it could be a lot longer considering the pressure the courts have been under since March’s lockdown.

Currently, the courts are likely to only accept applications unless they can be convinced of the urgency of the case, with some judges frowning upon litigants bringing ‘petty’ cases before the court at the present time. Lord Wilson, a former Supreme Court Judge, gave the memorable example of a litigant appearing before the court and asking the judge to decide which junction of the M4 motorway his children should be dropped off at for contact.

Experienced negotiators and mediators at your service

Depending on the terms you are on with your former spouse, you may well need the assistance of legal experts to agree on a variation to your court order. Our trained family lawyers possess excellent negotiation skills and are here to help you agree arrangements out of court to avoid the expense and delays many litigants are experiencing. We can also arrange access to expert mediators to guide you through the negotiation process.

To get in touch, please email our Head of Family Law, Belinda Strange at belinda.strange@attwaters.co.uk or call her on 0203 871 0011.

Sources

https://www.ft.com/content/13efda03-6229-470e-b774-8425b3eb43a7

https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice-points/we-cannot-ignore-court-backlogs/5106187.article

https://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/can-i-change-my-maintenance-order-owing-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic

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