Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the family courts: payment of maintenance
With daily life altered beyond recognition, businesses having to close their doors and sacrifices being made in respect of income, many people are concerned about making ends meet and putting food on the table whilst the coronavirus crisis rumbles on.
For many people, this will cause concern if they are receiving either spousal or child maintenance from their former partner.
A Spousal Maintenance Order is a directive from the court that one party is to pay an ongoing regular amount to the other party, often on a monthly basis. These generally tend to last for a number of years but can be in existence for the remainder of the parties’ lives.
Varying spousal maintenance order
These Orders can be varied during their lifetime, in situations where the parties’ circumstances have dramatically changed. This means that the amount can be increased or decreased. It can also be terminated entirely.
Variation is generally based upon the ability of the paying party to continue to make the payments that have been ordered. Certainly, in circumstances where the paying party were to lose their jobs and their income were to be affected, then their ability to pay maintenance will be significantly affected going forwards.
What if I receive maintenance payments?
If your former spouse has lost their income through the current Coronavirus Crisis, then, of course, you will need to be sensitive to that. It is difficult however if you are relying on those payments in order to meet your outgoings not only for yourself, but also for your children.
It may be possible for you to agree a temporary arrangement in the short term, whereby you can compromise on a figure where you are both able to manage until such time as the world goes back to normal. If you do this, then you will need to ensure that it is clear, in writing, that it is not intended to be a permanent change and that you have not had the benefit of taking legal advice in respect of long term changes.
If your former spouse is not able to increase the repayments when normality resumes, then you will be able to take further advice as to whether an application to court for enforcement of the maintenance is necessary.
What if I am currently paying maintenance?
If you are currently paying money to your former spouse under a Maintenance Order, then it is essential that you keep all lines of communication with them open regarding any changes with regards to your income.
How to reduce child maintenance payments
You will need to bear in mind that arrears of maintenance will accrue during the time that you are unable to make a full payment if there is an Order in existence. Therefore, if you do wish to attempt to reduce the amount of maintenance payable, then you ought to try and agree these in a Consent Order with your former spouse, if possible. At the very least, you will need to ensure that any temporary change is recorded in writing by email or text message to provide you with a measure of protection should your former spouse make an application to the court at a later date to enforce the arrears.
It is also possible to pay a lump sum rather than to pay maintenance on a monthly basis and this is often called capitalising the order. Effectively, you would pay a one-off lump sum to replace the income that you would otherwise provide. There are pros and cons to this for both parties involved, but it is essential that independent legal advice is taken with regards to this before agreeing any figures or lump sums.
What if we can’t reach an agreement?
A further difficulty presents itself in the fact that the current crisis is also impacting upon the court service. They are currently running a skeleton staff and dealing with Hearings remotely where possible. A court application should only be made to the court if they are absolutely essential and it is unlikely that Hearings will be listed until the autumn. Of course, if you are unable to reach an agreement, then you may feel that a court application for a variation may be your only option.
How much is child maintenance?
With regards to child maintenance, unless your former-spouse earns more than £156,000 per year or you have entered into a Consent Order within the last 12 months which sets out how much child maintenance shall be paid, then you will be able to make an application to the Child Maintenance Service to determine the correct amount of maintenance payable and to enforce this if need be.
For Family Law advice, whether it is Coronavirus related or in respect of general family matters, please contact Rebecca Massam on [email protected] or telephone 01732 747900 to speak to an expert in Family Law at Warners Solicitors.
This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.