Lisa Burton-DurhamAs more and more jobs and businesses are impacted by the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic, payers and recipients of child and spousal maintenance will undoubtedly be worried about how they will manage to meet their financial commitments.

If you find yourself in the situation of your normal income having been significantly reduced for reasons beyond your control such as losing your job or illness it is important that you consider how any child or spousal maintenance will be paid.

Child Maintenance

If this is being paid via the Child Maintenance Service it will be essential that you contact them as soon as possible so that they can reassess your liability.

If you and the other parent have previously come to a voluntary agreement you should contact them as soon as possible to explain the situation. Being honest and transparent and keeping your communication open at these uncertain times will be key.  Be clear that as soon as your income returns to normal the original payments will resume.

If you are currently paying child maintenance in accordance with a court order that was made less than 12 months ago then you will be in breach if you don’t continue to pay.  If you have no option but to stop paying or reduce your payments without your ex’s agreement you would be at risk of enforcement action being taken. However, if arrears accrue in circumstances which are entirely genuine e.g. if someone were to lose their job and their income, the court can remit i.e. wipe off some or all of any arrears which may accrue depending on the circumstances you find yourself in.  Again, speaking to the other parent if you can (or if not, an email/letter) will be key but if you are unable to come to an agreement together you will have to make an application to the court for a downward variation.

Spousal Maintenance

If you are making voluntary maintenance payments to your ex then again communication is key. Speak to them. Be prepared to show that you are making changes to your own lifestyle and are making budget cuts. Provide evidence to support your income reduction and any changes you are making. Remember the impact will be felt by you and your former partner and you will both be trying to do the best for yourself and those dependent upon you.

If the payments are in accordance with a court order then you will be in breach unless there is agreement to stop paying or you obtain an order varying your liability through the court  (you can use arbitration for this process as well).  If you are in breach you are at risk of enforcement.  If you are unable to reach an agreement with your former spouse then it is essential that you make an application to the court to have the order varied.

Reaching an agreement

If you are able to reach a temporary agreement with your former spouse/other parent then get it in writing so that you have a clear record of the new arrangements. Make sure you keep the correspondence confirming the agreement and any paperwork which was shared leading to the agreement. You may wish to convert this into a court order (a consent order) so there is formality around the arrangements.  However, the correspondence should be more than sufficient provided there is no subsequent arguments that the other person was misled or made to agree out of duress or undue influence.

Court applications

If you do find yourself in the situation of needing to apply to the court for a variation of an existing order, or indeed you wish to enforce an existing order that is not being adhered to, it will be important that you seek legal advice as soon as possible.  At the moment the courts are doing all they can to undertake hearings via telephone or video.  However, there is no doubt that the courts are also struggling with staff reductions and so they will be having to prioritise cases which is unlikely to be maintenance cases.  Therefore, we are expecting significant delays before variation and/or enforcement applications can be dealt with.

The application is made by lodging form A1. The court fee for this application is £255 and you will need to have attended a mediation information assessment meeting (MIAM) (which will incur further costs), unless certain exemptions apply. There are circumstances in which you can be exempt from paying the fee.

We are currently living in very uncertain economic times.  Payers and recipients will be equally worried.  Communication, understanding and building or maintaining trust will be crucial in ensuring that you work together for the benefit of your children.

If you need any advice or assistance on these issues please get in touch with us.  We are able to offer appointments by telephone or video.

Practical tips:

  1. Share any evidence you have to show how your income has been reduced. Don’t just assume you saying it has happened will be believed.
  2. Keep you ex up to date with any changes, whatever they may be.
  3. Don’t bury you head in the sand – act and react quickly.
  4. Consider finding a mediator who can meet virtually to help resolve the issue and don’t just use the MIAM as a means to getting the application form signed (which is the requirement unless the exemptions apply); genuinely try to use mediation to resolve matters.
  5. Empathise – this will impact on you and your ex and it is a very worrying time for all.
  6. Pay what you can e.g. if your income has been reduced but you can still afford something when having cut out any costs you can reduce.
  7. See going to court as a last resort and consider the process of arbitration for a swifter and more focused resolution.
  8. Recognise that if your separation was difficult it is likely to be very hard for your ex to accept the change is genuine so you will need to be as open and transparent as you can be.
  9. Be conscious of the fact that if an application is made that has no merit when it is clear maintenance is affordable, you may be at risk of an application for costs.
  10. Given the unique circumstances, as part of the conversation about how to manage think about how you and your ex would be able to use any savings you may have to meet any shortfall in maintenance and be imaginative as to how you are able to assist one another, especially for the sake of your children.

6 responses to “Impact of Coronavirus (Covid-19) on child and spousal maintenance payments

  1. I am a high earner on a self employed basis – over £150k per annum on an appropriately high divorce court oder settlement for child maintenance, and also spousal maintenance – I calculate my income will fall to £100 k per annum maybe less – is it reasonable to reduce payments as a percentage similar drop ? That is to say reduce them by about 33% – I am very happy to disclose monthly income figures to my ex and vary the monthly fall

    1. Thank you for sharing your question with us.

      From what you’re saying, it would be really important for you to get advice to ensure that matters are positioned quickly and sensitively given the impact events have had on your income and the resulting impact it would have on your ex/child’s financial position. Communication will be really important as you evidence the change in your circumstances. Equally, there will need to be reassurances in relation to how payments will return to “normal” once your income recovers. The challenge will be how long that may take and the uncertainty this creates for your ex. Nevertheless, given it is a court based order, unless you agree with your ex to reduce matters on a voluntary basis you will be in breach of the court order and at risk of enforcement action if you unilaterally reduce payments. You will need to consider making application to the court for variation given there has been a significant change in circumstances. The key will be to position this as sensitively as you can. Please let us know if we can assist with this so that we can look at the matter in the round, recommend a specific course of action to address the changes that need to be made and if not, assist you in preparing an application to the court. As part of trying to resolve this, you should also consider a referral to mediation to talk through the issues, explain the impact that it has had on you and evidence this and to discuss how to resolve matters as quickly as possible.

  2. I’m getting put on furlough leave as from Friday the 3rd April and will be on 80% pay does this mean I can lower my child maintenance payments by 20% ??

    1. Dear Mark. First of all, we hope your employer is able to ensure that you return to work as quickly as possible. Thank you for reading our blog and for commenting.

      It is not clear whether or not your payment is through the CMS, through a court order or by voluntary agreement. You will need to speak to your ex to explain your situation, and to explain the difficulty you face. If necessary, it’s vital you contact the CMS to explain what has happened and if payments are through a court order you may need to make an application to the court if matters cannot be dealt with on a voluntary basis. Communication will be key. As much as you rely on your own salary, your ex will no doubt be dependent upon child maintenance for meeting their/your child’s needs. It is a worrying time for everybody. If you cannot easily communicate with your ex then think about writing to them with evidence to show what your position is, confirming why you are unable to afford payments and reassuring them that you will reinstate payments as quickly as possible. Of course, this presupposes that your reduction in income justifies you saying you are unable to continue to make payments. We should also stress that where payments are made through the CMS or by court order you should make sure you do not do anything that would put you in breach of an assessment or court order which could then be enforced against you. You may need to get some advice to look at the position to see the best way to proceed and it may well be worth suggesting to your ex that you attend mediation to discuss how events have impacted upon you, how they will impact upon them/your child and how best to resolve it from everyone’s perspective.

      We wish you all very best in resolving this issue and returning to work as quickly as possible.

  3. My ex says that my daughter in y13 has finished education now that schools have closed early so has stopped paying maintenance. She is technically still in school and cannot find work due to coronavirus. Should he continue paying and for how long? He is financially secure

    1. Thank you for your question. You would need to confirm whether payments are by way of voluntary agreement, under the CSA/CMS or through a court order. The temporary closure of schools is quite clearly not the same as education finishing and would not be a terminating event in itself. You will need to contact your ex to request that he reinstates the payments and if not you will need to consider enforcement action (or letting the CMS know he is in arrears). We can assist if you need legal support with this so please do contact us if you do. In the meantime, we hope this helps.

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