How divorce and separation has been impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic
Figures published by Citizens Advice have revealed a sharp increase in divorce queries on its website during lockdown.
The organisation says that visits to its divorce web page rose by a quarter on the previous year during the first weekend of September.
The figures also show that on four consecutive weekends in August and September, divorce was the most viewed page on the Citizens Advice website.
Given the additional stress created by the Coronavirus epidemic, many couples may be looking for a quick, clean break with the minimum of acrimony.
No-fault divorces which were set to come into force this year, have not yet made it onto the statute books. Although Parliament has agreed the terms of the Bill, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 is not due to receive Royal Assent until autumn 2021 – due to delays in parliamentary business resulting from the pandemic.
Therefore, under current rules, a person petitioning for divorce must provide one of five reasons to demonstrate that their marriage has broken down irretrievably; namely adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion for at least two years, two years’ separation with the consent of both parties or five years’ separation without consent.
Despite the current divorce laws, it is still possible to deal with separation and divorce amicably, with many couples choosing mediation as a way forward.
Mediation is not only a practical option but is still readily available, despite local tiered restrictions, as sessions can be arranged via video conference meetings, allowing couples to work through the practical matters that need to be resolved.
Maintenance issues caused by the pandemic
The Coronavirus pandemic has also resulted in problems for couples who have already gone through the divorce process, with financial hardships creating issues with maintenance orders.
As a result of people being furloughed, taking pay cuts and made redundant due to the economic impact of Covid-19, many orders may have to be reviewed.
If someone subject to an order to pay spousal maintenance can no longer afford to do so, the onus is on them to raise this at the earliest opportunity with their ex-spouse, as they are legally bound to keep making payments until an agreement is reached to vary the amount paid or cease it completely.
If an agreement to reduce payments – a downward variation – is reached then that should be recorded in writing and an email is sufficient to confirm this. It is also wise to file a consent order at court to record the change in payment arrangements.
If an ex-spouse is unwilling to discuss a downward variation, even temporarily, they should seek legal advice. Again, mediation as well as arbitration can be helpful to deal with disputes but, as a last option, an application can be made to the court.
It is important to bear in mind that such global emergencies must not be used as an excuse by a paying party to have a ‘payment holiday’ or to force a downward variation permanently.
For help and guidance on matters relating to divorce, separation or maintenance order payments, please contact Peter Burden, Associate Director and Head of Mander Hadley’s Family Law team.
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