Spousal maintenance and Covid-1908/06/2020
Covid-19 is continuing to have a significant impact on everybody’s lives and the impact of the pandemic and financial consequences are concerning for many.
Across the country, people are facing uncertainty in respect of their income and employment. The employed may be furloughed and in fear of long term pay cuts or redundancy and the self-employed and business owners may still have their businesses closed or their profit significantly reduced.
Now more than ever, people are being required to focus on managing their income and outgoings.
‘Can I stop paying my spousal maintenance’….and ‘Help! My spousal maintenance payments have stopped’ are likely to be very familiar questions and phrases for Family lawyers during this time.
Firstly, it is important to note that an Order is an Order. A failure to pay the sums due is a breach of the Court Order which will apply unless and until it is varied.
It is possible to agree to vary an Order either short term and/or long term. Alternatively, a Court may Order a variation following an application.
If one party seeks to reduce their spousal maintenance payments because of the impact of the pandemic they should not do so unilaterally and should be prepared to explain and show, with documentary evidence in support, how their circumstances have changed to require the reduction.
The payer should also explore other options available to them that may enable the payments to continue during this time, remembering that the Court has determined that the party receiving the payment needs it, having considered all factors.
Could some other outgoings be suspended or altered? For example; is it possible to take a mortgage holiday in the short term to free up disposable income, could capital be used to support maintenance payments in the short term or, when one looks at their ordinary outgoings, are there now some reductions for matters such as eating out and entertainment etc. that make the maintenance still affordable despite a cut in pay.
It is always open for a party receiving the maintenance to apply to the court if the payer doesn’t pay but enforcement applications can be costly, stressful and take time to resolve, particularly in light of the inherit delays within the court system at this time. It may therefore be that the recipient can also consider their financial position to see whether a maintenance holiday could be agreed or a short-term reduction that can be made up again in the future, with or without interest for example. It may be that the recipient could also consider a mortgage holiday or their ‘lockdown’ outgoing needs generally.
In these unprecedented times, it would seem that the key will be communication and sensible agreement wherever possible to try to achieve a pragmatic and cost effective solution. Both parties will need to be prepared to be open and honest about their finances and listen to each other to arrive at a realistic conclusion.
We appreciate that this is not always possible for divorced couples to do directly and we would therefore urge anybody that has any concerns regarding maintenance payments; as the one ordered to pay or the one ordered to receive, to get in touch with us for some early advice.