Regardless of Covid, don't be tempted to stop spousal payments

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an emotionally and financially fraught time for everyone and, unfortunately, some relationships have also been causalities to the carnage. If you’re dealing with divorce or divorce payment problems during this time, it’s important to seek a resolution.

Everyone is feeling the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns of varying severity. However, there are certain groups who are being forgotten about amongst news of vaccines, the NHS and businesses – one of which is people who are either paying or receiving spousal payments following a divorce, or are in the midst of the divorce process.

If you’ve found your way here, there’s a good chance that you’re amongst this group. You may have lost your job or been furloughed, leaving you worried about how you are going to keep making spousal or child payments. You may be concerned that your ex-partner is about to suddenly stop making payments. Perhaps this has already happened. Or it could be that you are currently going through divorce proceedings and you have been left in limbo because of financial changes that are going to limit your ability to make or receive payments.

These precarious positions cause even more problems that can lead to a breakdown of any cordial relations between you and your ex-spouse or soon-to-be ex-partner. If you’re feeling tense about any of the above issues, it’s important that you seek out good legal advice that can not only help inform you about what to do, but can help ease these tensions and allow both parties to see each other’s perspectives in a calm manner. This is part of what we do at Foys.

But before we get to that, it’s important to walk through this situation, remind you that you are not alone in this struggle, discuss the ramifications of electing not to work with your ex-partner during this process, and establish why it is so important to avoid getting yourself in hot water with the courts.

The effects of the pandemic on divorce

Whether you were in the midst of divorce proceedings when COVID-19 hit hard, you’ve been divorced for a long time or the strain of lockdown propelled you and/or your partner to end your marriage, it’s not hard to understand why things have become much more heated between two people who were previously a couple. Worldwide rates of divorce, and sales relating to divorce-related legal proceedings, have seen major increases. In the UK, one law company found that inquiries into divorce had increased during periods of 2020 by well over 100% when compared to the same period of 2019.

It’s a staggering rise that suggests many are struggling to keep their relationship together whilst in lockdown. However, even Sweden, which tried to approach the pandemic with a non-lockdown approach, has also demonstrated similar trends. The effect of financial strain caused by the global situation cannot also be overlooked. This is something that people who are making – or are in the process of setting up – spousal payments will be all too aware of right now.

Whether a divorce has been brought about by changing financial circumstances, being around a partner too much, lockdowns causing untenable and unliveable situations for some people, or the pandemic making people think twice about what they want their post-pandemic life to look like, there’s no doubt about the correlation between the pandemic and divorces.

How divorcees and children are being affected

For people who are currently experiencing fear around making or receiving payments, the cause of this tension is also likely to be something out of their control. We know from an up-to-date YouGov poll that over a quarter of people who divorced over five years ago have reported dealing with conditions affecting their mental well-being – such as depression and anxiety. And when it comes to more recent divorcees, these mental health problems were present in nearly half of all respondents.

So even without considering the pandemic, we already know that people struggle during divorces. And now with the pandemic causing not only a loss of jobs, but people who have seen their investment portfolio hit an all-time low, substantial outgoings – such as maintenance payments – are going to seem absolutely untenable. Unfortunately, all of this has a knock-on effect on the partner who is receiving the payment too. Worry can set in when they hear that their ex-partner is in financial difficulty as this may also affect their quality of life, as well as their children’s quality of life, too.

And these aren’t the only problems. Access to children has become an even more difficult issue to navigate as some people are not allowing their previous partner to see their own kids for safety reasons. Or there is a partner who previously took the children at weekends who is now refusing to do so because they may now live with dependents who have underlying health issues that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. The whole situation is a veritable minefield.

Whether the pain of divorce resulting from the pandemic is from fresh verbal jousting or old wounds that have re-opened, it is clear is that mediation is always the best step you can take to try and solve divorce-related problems. The YouGov survey found that nearly two-thirds of all respondents agreed that had they accessed professional, legal advice at the start of divorce proceedings or when problems with an ex-partner first arose, their personal experiences would have improved.

The legal perspective

Divorce lawyers, such as the team here at Foys, are seeing a huge increase in people making all sorts of enquiries relating to divorce – both from old and soon-to-be-old marriages and civil partnerships – during the pandemic. It’s always a good idea to involve a divorce/family lawyer as soon as possible in the process due to the emotional nature of divorces.

From our perspective at Foys, we care about your mental health. Matters regarding divorce and family are never easy and our family lawyers have the speciality and experience to move at your pace. We’re that honest voice at the end of a call that you can rely on to help guide you through this difficult time. It’s important to keep emotions in check when dealing with your ex-partner or their legal representatives. We’ll always be the people who are going to look out for your interests, the interests of your children, and the interests of all parties involved.

We will always try and keep things out of the courts. This is something that can be achieved by conversing with your former spouse through a mediator in the form of a trained, professional lawyer. During the pandemic, this is even more important as the financial situation may make it impossible for one partner to make the payments they were previously making. There is no point going to court to fight for money that isn’t there.

In that instance, nobody wins from a financial or a mental and emotional perspective. However, should this process fail, you will likely need to get the courts to review the maintenance agreement and adjust any payments. However, you need to be able to prove – rather extensively – that these payments have to be reduced.

Knowing what you can and can’t do

It’s important to realise that you are on dangerous ground if you suddenly just stop child maintenance payments to your ex-spouse – especially if you do so without notifying them. If you already have a pre-existing agreement, you need to take every possible action to honour that agreement. Transparency and honesty will always reflect well should the case have to go to the courts, and this applies to both sides.

If your arrangement was made recently (i.e. within the past 12 months), then you cannot just stop these payments. If you are over this period and you do not make a payment, you do risk enforcement. However, if you are able to genuinely prove that you cannot make the payments – such as a demonstrable loss of income or employment – then the court may choose to wipe (either in part or in full) the payments that have accrued over the duration of that time.

Regarding spousal payments, if you do stop these then you need to be able to demonstrate that you are making changes to your lifestyle and that your personal expenditure is reduced. As with child maintenance payments, you leave yourself open to enforcement should you already have a pre-existing agreement. You will need to talk to your ex-spouse to agree upon a temporary reduction, or seek a court agreement.

Collaborative law is the process that the team at Foys will attempt to go through before taking matters to the courts – seeing us take on the role of an impartial mediator to the dispute.

The current court process under Covid

Should any mediation process fail, then you are bound to end up in the courts. Currently, the courts are struggling under the pressure of not just the increased amount of divorces during the pandemic, but in catching up with the disruptions to the service as a result of actions taken to reduce the spread of the virus. That means they are both behind on cases, and dealing with more cases than ever. As maintenance orders tend to take somewhere between half a year to a year to go through as it is, these time frames may end up increasing over the duration of the pandemic.

As such, the response by the courts has been to try and reduce the level of cases by only accepting applications they see as urgent. At the best of times, judges do not look kindly upon cases that they see as nothing more than a grudge; during the pandemic, they’re going to have even less time for such cases. It’s why you need to consider the possibility of avoiding the courts and finding a way to negotiate with your partner if you feel things are unnecessarily volatile.

This is because an application for judgement on financial orders when an agreement hasn’t been reached between parties currently costs £255 in England and Wales. While you may be exempt from making this payment under certain circumstances, there’s a good chance you could lose that money if your circumstances aren’t seen as strong enough.

What happens if legal advice gets ignored

Be advised that if you are making maintenance payments and you elect to simply stop paying, this will only come back to bite you in the future. You may decide to chance your luck because of the courts being snowed under and/or because you believe your ex-spouse doesn’t need the money. Aside from being irresponsible, the risk of taking such an action can come with a penalty.

You will be liable for enforcement, further court appearances/fees and you may be required to pay a further 8% interest on any money you owe to your ex-partner. If you are genuinely struggling to make these payments, it would be unwise to pile even more debt onto your name.

When your child is involved, the ramifications of missed payments can be far more consequential than just financial implications. Access to your child or children, as well as their future emotional well-being and relationship to you, could be irrevocably damaged. Simultaneously, these repercussions can also be felt when a parent takes the other parent to court over payments that the latter cannot afford. This is why mediation from a firm such as Foys is the best step you can take to solve the situation amicably with minimal emotional, mental and financial damage to all parties involved.

Divorce proceedings are in safe hands with Foys

Whether you’re in the early stages of deciding on a divorce, or you need a resolution with your ex-partner regarding spousal and/or child maintenance payments, Foys is here to provide you with all the support you need during this difficult time. Our experienced team knows that matters relating to divorce or an ex-spouse can be distressing in normal times – doubly so during a pandemic – and we simply want to provide the best outcome possible for all involved.

Foys’ specialist team are consummate professionals when it comes to tackling the intricacies of family law. Amongst our inter-disciplinary ranks are accredited resolution specialists, Law Society Children’s Panel representatives, and a collaborative family lawyer. We strongly believe that an empathy-driven approach, combined with a commanding knowledge of family law, ensures that everyone is safe in the hands of our experienced solicitors and administrative staff.

At Foys, we don’t want you to feel overwhelmed by the situation and that’s why we will walk you through the whole legal process on a step-by-step basis in a way that you can easily understand. This ensures that you have all the information at hand to make the right decisions for your situation. This process starts with a FREE initial consultation with one of our family law solicitors. Just call 01302 327136 or fill in our online enquiry form to start the process of putting that worry behind you.

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