It is almost two months since life as we knew it changed because of the Coronavirus. Whilst there is much speculation and confusion surrounding the easing of restrictions and the return to some form of normality, many families across the UK remain concerned not only about the risk to health, but also the economic consequences resulting from this pandemic.
One issue affecting many separated families is the payment of spousal and/or child maintenance.
Spousal maintenance is the financial support provided by one former spouse to another, usually paid monthly, to enable the recipient spouse to meet his or her day to day expenses (e.g. food, housing costs and household bills).
Child maintenance is the financial support provided by an absent (non-resident) parent to the parent caring for the child to help meet that child’s living expenses. Child maintenance is payable irrespective of whether a child’s parents were married.
Maintenance payments are pertinent in the current climate as many individuals who have such obligations are facing either redundancy, being furloughed or a reduction to their salary.
Here are some frequently asked questions which may assist:
I have a court order. Can my former spouse stop or reduce my spousal maintenance because of Covid-19? / Can I reduce or pause my spousal maintenance payment during this pandemic?
If that order will set out the events which will either reduce of end spousal maintenance; such as upon death, remarriage or a further order of the Court.
Pandemics are not common triggers in such Orders. If the person paying the spousal maintenance should find himself/herself struggling to pay, then that person should not cease or alter the payments without the consent of the person receiving the spousal maintenance. If payments are stopped or reduced unilaterally, this will be considered a breach of the Court Order, which could have serious consequences for the payor.
If you are the person receiving spousal maintenance and your maintenance payments have been stopped or reduced without your agreement, or the payor has informed you that he/she will stopping or reducing the payments, you should seek urgent legal advice from one of our specialist team. Our specialist solicitors will explore your options with you. It may be possible to agree an interim arrangement without the need for contentious and costly Court proceedings. If an agreement cannot be reached and payments stop or reduce unilaterally, you may be advised to apply to the Court seeking enforcement and interest for any late payments. A variation could also be decided through the use of arbitration, although both parties will need to agree to use this process.
If you are the person paying spousal maintenance and you are struggling to continue paying because of the financial impact of the pandemic, then you should seek urgent legal advice from one of our specialist team. They will discuss your options with you. Please be aware that you will need to provide evidence of your financial hardship and so it would be helpful to have this information available when seeking advice. Depending on your circumstances, it may be possible to agree a variation of the maintenance provision for a limited period of time. If a variation is not agreed, you may be advised to issue a Court application to vary the maintenance provision, or, if the other party is in agreement, to have the issue resolved by arbitration.
I have a Child Maintenance Assessment and the absent parent has stopped or reduced my payments because of Covid-19, what can I do? / I cannot afford to pay the amount that the Child Maintenance Service has told me to pay for my child because of Covid-19 – what can I do?
If the paying parent’s income has changed by 25% or more as a result of covid-19, the Child Maintenance Service will recalculate the amount of child maintenance payable. However, the change in income or circumstances needs to be reported to the Child Maintenance Service promptly. Please be aware that you will need to provide evidence to the Child Maintenance Service of the changes to your circumstances e.g. copies of correspondence from your employer, latest payslips and/or tax returns. You should avoid altering the child maintenance amount unilaterally without consulting the other parent and having a formal reassessment as doing so may result in action being taken by the Child Maintenance Service to ensure payments are made.
There is a Court Order which provides an amount for child maintenance – can this be reduced or stopped?
The answer to this question depends on the type of Court Order that you have.
If the Order was made as part of your financial settlement following a divorce or dissolution then it may be possible to vary the amount paid without the need to apply to the Court provided that the Order was made over 12 months ago. In those circumstances either party can apply to the Child Maintenance Service for an assessment as to the level of child maintenance payable.
If however, you have special circumstances where a Court Order for child maintenance was made in financial proceedings relating to your child or children, that Order should provide when maintenance is to cease (e.g. the child reaching 18, ceasing full-time education, or a further Order from the Court). If maintenance ceases outside of those ‘events’ then the Order has been breached and the receiving parent can apply for enforcement and interest for any late payments. If you are looking to reduce or to stop the maintenance Ordered, or you have had your maintenance reduced or stopped, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible as time may be of the essence.
Whatever your circumstances you should contact one of our specialists as soon as possible for advice tailored to your particular situation. Our team will explore various options with you including the possibility of resolving your dispute outside of the Court arena if at all possible.
Whatever your personal circumstances the above is only a guide and we would advise you to contact us to obtain definitive advice as you will appreciate that each person’s circumstances are unique to them.