The coronavirus crisis has had far-reaching financial consequences for everyone in our society. For those who are obliged to pay maintenance to a former spouse there is the added worry of how they are going to afford to pay what is due, particularly if their income has gone down or ceased altogether.
Maintenance can be formally varied by the court (up or down) where there has been a change in circumstances since the original order was made. The loss of a job or a reduction income is a change in circumstances which might well warrant a variation downwards. However, where the reduction of income is for a short period of time (because the payer of the maintenance has been furloughed or been required to take a pay cut during the coronavirus crisis), asking the court to become involved is not a viable option. The cost of doing so will probably be more than the reduction sought and the court will be unlikely to consider the issue in time in any event.
Instead, try one of the following:
- If you can, talk to your ex-spouse. Explain your position to them and ask them to accept less maintenance from you until your usual terms of employment have resumed. If they agree, then exchange emails to confirm the new arrangement and keep these emails safe in case your ex-spouse changes their mind at a later date. The court order will still stand but if you can prove that the amount of the maintenance was reduced by agreement, it will be more difficult for them to later argue that you have fallen into arrears.
- If you can afford to do so, temporarily pay the maintenance from your savings. Although this may seem unfair, it will see you through the coronavirus crisis (without falling into arrears) after which you will be in a better position to evaluate whether or not your circumstances are such that there needs to be a permanent change in the maintenance you are paying.
- Suggest to your ex that the two of you meet virtually with a mediator - an independent neutral - who will help you talk about the maintenance and to reach an agreement as to how much you should pay, either in the short or longer term.
If the reduction in your income is likely to be for more than just a short period of time, or is permanent, then do seek specialist family law advice sooner rather than later so that you don’t fall behind with your maintenance payments and into financial difficulties. A family solicitor will advise you on your rights, guide you through the variety of non-court options available and help you to devise a strategy for achieving a reduction, or termination, of the maintenance. In the alternative, a family mediator will create a safe place for you and your ex-spouse to explore your respective current circumstances and agree on what your future financial relationship should look like.
It is not just in a crisis that maintenance can and should to be varied. Lots of different situations give rise to a need to change, or bring to an end a maintenance arrangement, including retirement, cohabitation, a former spouse no longer needing any (or as much maintenance), or the maintenance coming to an end in exchange for a one-off payment. Whether we will see more of these scenarios as a result of the coronavirus crisis and the re-evaluation by people of their life plans is yet to be seen.
Sometimes just talking things over can help and it may be that all it needs is a letter to your ex, or a call to their solicitor to get things moving. There are also lots of dispute resolution options available which can be accessed quickly and which are cheaper than going to court. Please get in touch for a chat over Zoom as to what your options are and what your next steps might be. Some of us in the family team are trained in mediation and can help as expert solicitors or as family mediators.