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COVID-19: Separation and divorce

20 March 2020

Separating from your partner or getting divorced is difficult enough. For those in difficult family situations, facing a period of isolation at the same address while hearing of mass redundancies, plummeting stock markets and empty shelves in supermarkets, the next few weeks may seem impossible.

The Government is advising social distancing, that we stay at home, work from home and avoid pubs and theatres. Transport is being scaled back. Schools are closing on Friday 20 March (save for some that will remain open to support keyworkers and vulnerable children) with no plans to re-open and summer exams not taking place.

Financial pressures on every household are real, and exacerbated for those families who are dividing one household into two. Tensions are running high and for many separating couples the weeks and months ahead look bleak.

The following points provide some guidance on how to separate during Covid-19:

Basic behaviour

  • Treat each other in a civil manner and with respect – this is not always easy, especially when you are engaged in a difficult separation or court hearings and there has been a breakdown in trust/communication. However, it is important – particularly if you are living with children. You and your ex-partner may have to rely on each other during these unprecedented times, even if you were struggling to speak to each other last week.
  •  Try to find a way to communicate – there are significant practical issues to contend with in the coming weeks and months. Arguments are not going to help, nor will passive aggressive note passing about who can use what. Think ahead and raise any shortages/problems that you foresee in advance. Perhaps set up a 5 minute call/email exchange at a particular point in the day to raise or discuss practicalities/concerns/immediate issues. Limit conversation to what is needed to resolve the practical issues that arise and get you through the next few weeks.

Children

  • Do not involve the kids – children are sponges who absorb tension and conflict. It is always difficult to shield them from a breakdown in their parents’ relationship, especially if the family is having to occupy the same space for extended periods during that time, or parents are anxious. However, it is important that you do. Prioritise your children’s welfare and what is in their best interests.
  • Think outside of the contact box – try to find different ways for children to spend time with parents/family (subject to any court orders) – for example via facetime, or trips to the park/other outside spaces. Children are being advised to stay away from grandparents.
  • Write it down – if you are feeling frustrated or angry about something that your (ex) partner is doing and that you cannot raise it with them without it causing an argument at home, keep a diary so that you have a record of what has happened.

Finances

  • Money worries (short and long term) – given the impact that Coronavirus is currently having on the economy, stocks and shares, small businesses, employees, likely house prices, this is inevitably going to have an impact on your financial situation in the short and longer term.Assets may need to be valued or re-valued – and we can anticipate that they are likely to have fallen in value, at least in the short term, meaning that there is less to be divided. If property prices fall, this could be particularly devastating – reducing equity available for division, but also making it harder to sell the family home, which is often the largest asset a family has. Living arrangements during this time is something else that will need to be resolved.Income positions are also likely to be materially affected, potentially dramatically so in the short term. It may be that you/your representatives need to speak about liquidating assets to enable you (both – and particularly any children) to survive financially through this this difficult time. Taking a pragmatic, constructive approach to this may limit conflict and cost, and if short term cash-flow problems can be resolved, the whole family will benefit. However, you do need to be cautious about what you are left with after Covid-19.At this time, the focus should be on being aware of what the potential issues may be, and how to ensure that in the short term your family unit’s needs can be met. Keep an eye on the future position too. The government is offering support (as widely reported in the press) including loans to small businesses, mortgage holidays and assistance to those renting. If you are concerned about your finances, there is help available. Speak to a family lawyer who will be able to offer advice.

Action that can be taken

  • Limit conflict and the need for court hearings – the court is operating and we have guidance from the President of the Family Division and the Financial Remedies Court on what hearings (including urgent hearings) can take place, including remotely. However, the already overburdened court systems are having to quickly adjust to remote working. Mr Justice Mostyn has implored us to avoid hearings where possible and to consider alternative dispute resolution methods – mediation, or engaging private judges or arbitrators to adjudicate on a dispute. It may well be that you are able to act jointly and constructively to limit legal costs and avoid debt/defaulting.
  • Who to turn to – the courts are open and quickly adjusting to ensure that access to justice can continue at this time. Solicitors, barristers, mediators and many others in the family law field are working from home to provide advice, guidance and support. Finally, if you are concerned about your safety or the safety of your children, you should contact the police.

Our Family team is available to assist you with the full range of difficulties that you may be facing at this unprecedented time. You can contact the team here.

This article is a general summary and should not replace specific legal advice tailored to your circumstances.

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