Covid-19 and Spousal Maintenance Orders

What is a Spousal Maintenance Order?

Following a divorce, the Court may be required to resolve financial matters between the parties. While clean breaks are encouraged by the Courts, there may be circumstances where this cannot achieve equality and may subsequently issue a Spousal Maintenance Order.

An Order of such requires the former husband, wife or civil partner to make fixed periodic payments to their former partner for a defined period of time as directed by the Court.

However, with COVID-19 having a devastating effect on the world’s economy, it is appropriate to discuss a number of scenarios which may arise with Spousal Maintenance Orders.

I have seen a reduction in earnings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what are my options?

The first and most amicable option is to contact your former spouse to seek a variation to the existing agreement. In doing so, you should obtain the necessary documentation evidencing a reduction in your salary in order to vary the existing Spousal Maintenance Order.

However, if an agreement cannot be reached, you can apply to the Court to vary the current Order. In considering a variation to a Spousal Maintenance Order, the Courts are awarded with wide discretion and will prioritise the welfare of any children before considering the factors detailed in s25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

It is always advisable to seek independent legal advice to ascertain the likelihood of succeeding in your application to vary due to the potential legal costs, especially if this reaches a contested hearing.

I have lost my job due to COIVD-19, can I cease payments to my former partner?

Where the Court has ordered spousal maintenance to be made to the former spouse, you are required by law to keep to such payments. If your financial position materially changes, you should handle the matter by acting reasonably and proposing a reduced sum to your former partner until employment is sought or until your financial position reverts.

If the former spouse refuses your proposal and an agreement cannot be reached, you can then apply to the Court to vary the current Order as detailed above.

It is important to note that unless the defined period has concluded, either party has died or remarries, the payer should never cease to make payments without being ordered to by the Court. Failure to make payment may invite the Court to issue the payer to pay a lump sum in lieu of continued maintenance to the recipient.

My former partner has ceased their maintenance payments due to COVID-19, what are my options?

If this occurs, it is advised that you contact your instructing solicitors to inform them of the same. Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to reach out to your former spouse to ascertain why payments have ceased and request evidence of their reduced income if this is the reason. You should then seek advice from solicitors who can advise accordingly and seek a reasonable reduced maintenance payment agreement.

If this approach is unsuccessful or not appropriate, you should contact solicitors to enforce the Spousal Maintenance Order. Effectively, if the Court were to enforce the current Order they have the ability to order the payer making a lump sum payment in lieu of ongoing maintenance.

Summary

COVID-19 continues to challenge the practicalities of keeping to Court Orders and in particular, keeping to Spousal Maintenance Orders in unprecedented financial times. Nevertheless, it is imperative that Spousal Maintenance Orders are abided by, otherwise the recipient can apply to enforce such Orders.

If payments become unrealistic given your financial position, you should seek legal advice and consider seeking an agreement or varying the Order.

If you require further guidance regarding Spousal Maintenance Orders, our experts are on hand to support any query you may have and support you through this pandemic.

By Richard Harrington

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