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Varying maintenance payments due to Covid-19 hardship

View profile for Laura Martin-Read
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The coronavirus pandemic has turned most of our world upside down, causing economic hardship for many people and job losses are expected to continue as the furlough scheme comes to an end.

‘If you have lost all or part of your income, your ability to pay or rely upon maintenance payments will be a cause for concern as you seek to manage cash flow,’ says Laura Martin-Read, a solicitor in the family team at Family Law Group, Milton Keynes office ‘Uncertainty over child maintenance adds another level of stress for parents who are struggling to cope with home-schooling.’

Maintenance payments typically fall into two categories, spousal maintenance and child maintenance, which we look in turn and outline your options if you are worried about paying or receiving maintenance.

Spousal maintenance

Spousal maintenance may be paid because of a voluntary agreement during divorce proceedings or by way of a court order between separated spouses. 

Voluntary arrangements

If your spousal maintenance is paid by way of a voluntary arrangement, then you should first talk to your former spouse about your concerns. 

If you are the one who receives payments, see if an agreement can be reached in order that you are still able to maintain your regular outgoings.  These are uncertain economic times for many, but hopefully any variation will be short-lived while your former spouse is getting back to a normal work routine.  If your former spouse simply stops paying and you are relying on that income, it may be possible to make an emergency application to the court for maintenance pending suit (MPS), or interim spousal maintenance.  This application can only be made if a divorce is underway so it may require some urgent legal advice and we can advise you on this.

If you are the person who pays maintenance, then it is best to be open at an early stage with your former spouse in order that they can manage their own finances.  Do not simply wait until they notice the payment into their bank has reduced or stopped as this will lead to distrust, and your spouse may be less inclined to cooperate with your request to lower payments.  If you are in receipt of a furlough payment you may still be able to pay something to your former spouse.  To reach an agreement, you should be upfront about your own outgoings and reduced income, and also be mindful that your former spouse may be relying on your maintenance payments to cover their financial commitments.  If you cannot agree with your former spouse then they may issue an emergency application to the court for maintenance pending suit.

Under a court order

If your spousal maintenance is paid further to a court order (whether maintenance pending suit during divorce proceedings or as a final court order), then you must have the agreement of the receiving spouse or the court to vary this.  Any agreement reached with your former spouse should be recorded in writing.  We can assist with the negotiation and drafting of such an agreement. 

If no agreement can be reached, then it may be necessary for you to apply to court.  Most people will have to attend a mediation session, known as a MIAM, before applying to court.  We can advise you if this is necessary, and it can be carried out remotely via video if required.

You may choose to apply to court if you are the receiving party in order to enforce the maintenance order, or, if you are the paying party you may apply for a downward variation of the maintenance order.  Either way we can draft the application and represent your interests at court.  During the pandemic it is possible to deal remotely via video link with the courts without you having to be present yourself in the court building.  It is best to deal with this without delay in order to avoid accumulating arrears.

Child Maintenance

Child maintenance is normally paid to the parent that primarily lives with the child and receives the child benefit.

As with spousal maintenance, if you are unable to pay child maintenance at your usual level then you should first speak to your former partner to see if you can reach a compromise agreement in the short term while your income is lower than normal.

If your payments are made via the Child Maintenance Services, then you must also contact them to see if they will carry out a reassessment.  A reassessment is applicable if:

you stop working for an employer, so this will help those who have been made redundant;

if you are on statutory sick pay, which may help if you are having to self-isolate due to Covid-19; or

if your income has decreased by 25 per cent or more.

If you are presently on furlough it is therefore unlikely that you will have suffered a significant enough change in your income to warrant a reassessment.  In these circumstances you should pay what you can and try and reach a temporary agreement with your former partner. 

If your child maintenance is paid further to a court order, then you should try and agree a new payment with your former partner.  A formal court application may be needed to vary the existing court order.  In some cases the court will not have the power to vary the child maintenance order and an application to the Child Maintenance Service could be necessary – it very much depends on the circumstances surrounding the original child maintenance order.  We can advise you if it is advisable to issue a court application in your circumstances and, if so, we can draft the necessary papers for you and represent your interests at court.  You should be mindful that with the pandemic, the courts are having to prioritise certain cases and you may well experience some delay in having your case heard.  It is best under the circumstances to make what payments you can to ensure any arrears are minimised. 

How we can help

Our team of family law specialists can help you navigate the best way forward, to ensure you are still complying with your legal requirements, and that you are not in for any nasty surprises, such as an arrears bill, once the crisis is over.

For further information, please contact Laura Martin-Read in the Milton Keynes office of Family Law Group on 01908 787900 or email laura.martin-read@familylawgroup.co.uk

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.

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