In recent weeks, we have seen some of the tightest pandemic-related restrictions eased in line with the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown. Whether it be the reopening of gyms, non-essential shops or pubs/restaurants, there is a definite cause for optimism following a long winter lockdown.
However, for some, the financial impact of the pandemic has been severe and the effects are likely to be felt for months to come. For those who have been ordered to pay spousal maintenance, it can be an extremely overwhelming time, as they attempt to juggle their own living costs with outgoing support payments.
These pressures are multiplied when the paying party has been furloughed or made redundant with limited employment opportunities in the pipeline. For the recipient of spousal maintenance, the lack of support payments could cause serious uncertainty, especially if they too are feeling the strain.
The pandemic has been a difficult period for everyone, so it is important that parties work together to find a suitable solution, so that spousal maintenance payments continue without putting either party in an uncomfortable or unsustainable financial position.
Adjust the payments
Instead of frantically thrashing about and stretching your finances in a bid to keep your head above water, there are other alternatives that can and should be explored to ensure spousal maintenance payments are covered appropriately.
Firstly, the Court has the jurisdiction to either increase, reduce or end a maintenance term based upon the specific facts of a case. As a requirement, the Court must also consider any change of circumstances that have arisen since the original maintenance order was issued.
In other words, the spousal maintenance payment originally agreed can be renegotiated to reflect the current situation of both parties. Undoubtedly, there will be individuals who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, months after the original maintenance payment was agreed.
Therefore, it is important that the Court considers the income and income needs of both parties, so that a fair conclusion is reached. In some cases, this means increasing the original spousal maintenance to ensure the needs of the recipient and any children are met, especially if the paying party is in a more secure financial position.
Reach an agreement
If you find yourself in this position, there are typically two ways to deal with the situation. You can either make an agreement with your former spouse or make a formal application to the Court to decide how, if at all, maintenance payments should be varied.
Ideally, parties should aim to make an agreement rather than involving the Court, as this is a more cost and time effective solution that can be resolved with the help of solicitors or by attending mediation.
If you are the paying party, it is important to be upfront and honest, explaining the situation to your former spouse and providing some kind of roadmap as to whether this is likely to be a short term problem or something more permanent.
This is where it is important to think outside the box and explore different payment alternatives. For example, it may be possible to utilise capital resources to make up the shortfall in maintenance or there could be government support packages available to soften the blow.
If you have been furloughed, then you could use this income to pay your former spouse some of their maintenance or take advantage of the mortgage break initiative to free up your income. For those that have been made redundant and have received a lump sum, it may be wise to utilise some of this money until a long-term alternative has been secured.
If you manage to reach an agreement about any change to maintenance payments, then it’s crucial to record these in a consent order as a variation by consent, and file it at Court to avoid any potential breach of a Court Order.
Seek advice early on
If you expect your current financial situation to last long-term, then it is important to seek legal advice early, as you may be able to agree a cessation of maintenance payments or vary maintenance downwards..
Ultimately, you need to consider how proportionate it is to incur the costs of litigation versus what it is you hope to recover or achieve at court. If this is a short-term problem, then it may not justify the costs of applying to vary maintenance or making an application to enforce.
Where possible, both parties should seek to come to an amicable agreement with a clear strategy around how the payments will be covered.
If you are currently facing relationship difficulties and would like to discuss any of the issues outlined in more detail, then we are available by telephone or virtually and have offices across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
For more information, please contact Anna Patsalides, a solicitor in the Family Law team here at Taylor Walton on 01727 818525 or by email Anna.Patsalides@taylorwalton.co.uk or Ben Twitchen, Partner and Head of Department on 01582 714609 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need any help in relation to this.