Spousal maintenance and financial support is an emotive topic and often a source of bitter conflict, so it’s no surprise that lockdown has brought it to the surface even more than usual – and no-one is immune. Recently the media has widely reported the maintenance dispute between Robert De Niro and his former wife Grace Hightower, where he was successful in reducing the financial support he provides on a credit card by 50 per cent.
Stories such as this are likely to remain in the news for some time, and there will be more demands on the court to deal with cases where one spouse seeks to reduce the maintenance payments made in more affluent times.
On the flip side, the pandemic has caused personal financial situations to change drastically, some permanently, which may well be the trigger for elevating once nominal maintenance support to a more substantive level.
As there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to maintenance variation applications, I have set out my top tips below:
- Whether you need to reduce spousal maintenance payments or want to seek an uplift, you need to give the other side a chance to digest and consider their position. This means it is best to address the issue at the earliest possible opportunity and figure out your strategy.
- Be transparent about your financial situation and be prepared to provide documentation in support. If you need to go to court, you will be asked to provide documentary evidence to support what you say.
- Like all litigation, the cost to fight these types of applications at court can be costly and time-consuming, so consider mediation and legal support. A family lawyer can help at an early stage to guide you through the very fact-specific process, and can negotiate directly with the other side or assist in the background if you opt for mediation. They can also assist you in tandem with other professionals such as forensic accountants, if you believe the other side is not being clear and transparent with respect to their finances.
- If you cannot reach agreement, consider whether your change in circumstances is only temporary or if it may be more medium to long term, and consider the costs and benefits before issuing court proceedings.
- If you reach an agreement to vary maintenance support, it is vital that this is documented in writing and then converted into a consent order to vary the terms of the original order. This puts the court in a position to endorse the agreement and make it legally binding.
In a post-pandemic world, the courts are likely to be kept busy with more demands to not only deal with people seeking a reduction in maintenance payments but also those potentially asking for an uplift. However, the court option can be costly, so it makes sense to consider all of the options and make a genuine effort to reach a negotiated settlement. It is also important that one undertakes a cost/benefit analysis before applying to court. As the old saying goes, “Just because you can, does not mean that you should”.