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What Can I do If I Can’t Afford To Pay Maintenance During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Unfortunately, the Coronavirus crisis has had a financial impact on many people. If you have financial obligations to pay maintenance to your ex-spouse or child support, you may be worried about how you can keep up the payments if you have been furloughed or suffered financially during the Pandemic. You may also be concerned about what will happen if you are made redundant.

The law acknowledges that life is unpredictable and circumstances can change. This is why a maintenance order has the potential to be varied up or down by the Court. The payer of the maintenance can apply for the payments to be reduced, suspended or discharged. However, before rushing into a variation application, it is vital to consider all the options especially if your reduction in income is likely to be for a limited period (for example because you have been furloughed or required by your employer to take a pay cut for 6 months). Bear in mind that variation proceedings can be expensive and the costs can easily outweigh the reduction in maintenance sought. There is also the practical difficulty that it is unlikely the Court will be able to deal with your application in the time frame needed.

If you are struggling to pay the maintenance ordered, it is important not to stop the payments as this will mean you are in breach of the Court Order which might result in enforcement proceedings being commenced by your ex.

The following options are well worth exploring:-

1. Think practically about what you can do to reduce your expenditure. For example, consider applying for a mortgage holiday and focus on essential living expenses and managing your budget. If possible, consider temporarily paying the maintenance shortfall from the savings, at least until your income position becomes clearer and you can seek legal advice.

2. If you are able to, communicate calmly and reasonably with your ex-spouse about the reduction in your income, explaining your difficulty in affording the payments and provide them with the proof of your reduced salary/pay cut. If you can, try to reach an agreement directly that you will pay a reduced level of maintenance for a temporary period until the situation regarding your employment has been clarified.

It is important to appreciate that the Court Order will still remain in place so it will be essential to record in writing any agreement reached with your ex-spouse about a reduction. This is so you can demonstrate that the maintenance was reduced by consent if your ex-spouse later seeks to argue that you should have to pay arrears of maintenance. Arrange with your ex to review matters regularly with the objective being to revert to the terms of the original maintenance order as soon as possible.

3. Suggest to your ex-spouse that you arrange a virtual appointment (by Zoom or Skype) with a mediator who can help you talk matters through and hopefully reach agreement about an adjustment to the maintenance.

4. Remember that a solicitor will be able to advise you on what is a suitable compromise and can write to your ex-spouse if required. If a longer term reduction is agreed between you and your ex-spouse, your solicitor can draft a Consent Order which will mean that the reduction in maintenance is formally recognised and approved by the Court.

5. If you are paying child support under a Child Maintenance Assessment and your income has gone down by 25% or more as a result of the Pandemic, the Child Maintenance Service will re-calculate the amount of child maintenance you have to pay. However, you will need to report this to the Child Maintenance Service promptly and produce documentary showing evidence of the changes in your income. Make sure you do not reduce the child support until the child maintenance service has made a formal re-assessment.

If the reduction in your income is likely to be long term or permanent (eg. because you have been made redundant), it is important to seek specialist family law advice as soon as possible).

Tisshaws has the expertise and experience as family law specialists to advise about court variation applications which can sometimes raise complex and technical issues. We can also help you devise a strategy to try and achieve a reduction in the maintenance. We offer a fixed fee meeting to give guidance and help you decide on the process.

For further information or to set up an appointment, please telephone 01444 472700.

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