There seems to be an assumption that every aspect of human life is in the deep freeze until we emerge from the coronavirus tunnel. While this is obviously true for very many of the things that we love and enjoy, divorce is not traditionally one of them, particularly the financial aspects of divorce. As anyone who has been through the process will tell you, financial uncoupling takes time. And so for some, this will be a perfect opportunity to get on with all the preparatory work that goes into reaching a financial settlement, and in many cases the settlement itself.
Here, The Divorce Surgery explains how and why.
If you haven’t done so already, the first decision is to choose the framework for resolving matters. Although the Family Court is there as a last resort if you really cannot settle matters privately, there is a real emphasis on avoiding this if at all possible. And once you get there, even before coronavirus struck, all Family Court judges were required to consider opportunities for the parties to reach an out of court settlement by whatever means are suitable. The drawbacks of pursuing unnecessary litigation through the Family Court are many: increased acrimony, cost and delay, to name just a few.
As you might expect, coronavirus has also taken a massive toll on the operation of the Family Court. Much of the court function can be conducted remotely by video-link but there are understandable teething problems. The current position is that all physical presence at court hearings is only permitted in exceptional and urgent circumstances, and where a remote hearing cannot be arranged. This means that longer hearings in particular are being delayed.
Further information on what to do if your hearing has been adjourned can be found in our blog My Family Court Hearing has been adjourned due to the coronavirus – what can I do?
As a result, there is now an even greater official steer towards alternative dispute resolution, or ‘ADR’. This term refers to the various non-court options which exist to help couples resolve their differences, including by mediation, arbitration, ‘Private-FDR’, and our own unique ‘One Couple One Lawyer’ service in which a couple takes legal advice together from one expert barrister. The competing merits of all of these approaches can be found in our recent blog Myth-busting Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Choosing the ADR option which is right for you requires pause for thought. We are happy to talk through these options at one of our free of charge Introductory Sessions, conducted by video-link.
Whichever route you choose, the next stage will be to compile your financial disclosure. This can be a significantly time-consuming process, without which neither party can have confidence that any settlement reached will be fair. If you don’t know broadly what is in the pot, how can you divide it fairly? In a traditional court-based process, negotiations may not even begin in earnest until several months have elapsed while you exchange your financial disclosure.
But given that the information you need is almost always available online, or with the help of financial advisers or accountants who are working remotely themselves, there is no reason at all why this cannot be got underway at the very least during this period of lockdown. Indeed, it would be extremely frustrating to emerge after two or three months of inaction at home only to be told you need to spend the next 6 weeks collating financial documentation which you could have been doing all along. Obtaining the necessary information from your pension fund, for example, can be a particularly slow process. So use this time productively.
Of course, there may be specific difficulties with valuing assets in the current climate. Stock market volatility is very considerable, with knock-on effects on the value of investments and pension funds. Meanwhile, the housing market is effectively suspended. Job and earnings prospects for many will be less optimistic than they were. Care will certainly have to be taken in making assumptions against this background, but this does not mean you should simply do nothing until coronavirus is ‘over’.
If you read the papers, it can be hard to know what to expect. On the one hand the FTSE 100 has fallen 27% in a year and a stream of journalists are warning of the likelihood of a Great Depression. On the other, estate agent Knight Frank predicts only a modest 3% fall in house prices this year, followed by a rebound next year. There are plenty who expect a gradual return to ‘normal’ once lockdown is eased. None of us has a crystal ball as to how the wider economic impact of coronavirus will play out.
The long-term consequences may reverberate for years. But for many people life will and must go on, before the final conclusions as to the effects of this crisis are argued over by historians in due course.
For the many separating couples who want to move on, an open-ended process of seeing ‘what happens next’ simply isn’t realistic or necessary. Decisions need to be taken, lives need to be planned.
And in any event, the present financial uncertainty may or may not be relevant to you depending on your particular circumstances. For example, if it is agreed that one of you is to keep the family home as a base for you and your children for the next ten years, does its precise market value today really matter that much? And if financial uncertainty does concern you, then in many cases settlements can be structured in such a way as to balance out future pitfalls, for example by making sure there is a fair sharing of the risky and less risky assets. Maintenance payments are always variable if a decision taken today proves unsustainable in the future thanks to unexpected developments.
If you are in the process of, or are contemplating, separation then legal advice is a must.
Our team of specialist barristers at The Divorce Surgery are well-versed in advising in an economic downturn. For further information please email email@example.com or call 0203 488 4475. We are entirely set up for remote working, so you need never leave home in order to strike a deal. We reckon to complete most of our cases in 6-8 weeks from start to finish, which is considerably shorter than the alternatives.