Typical January divorce rush set to come early as couples put 2020 behind them
The coronavirus pandemic has placed an immense strain on relationships. This year has created the “perfect storm” of couples being locked down together, juggling the unique demands of work and home schooling and in many cases facing additional financial pressures and health concerns.
Divorce enquiries between July-October 2020 were up 122% compared to the same period in 2019. Interest in separation spiked during the summer months, as the number of people seeking divorces between July and August tripled compared with the same period last year. I am expecting a further spike in the next couple of months in the light of the latest national lockdown.
Spending prolonged periods at home typically leads to spikes in new divorce cases in ‘normal’ life – our peak times being after Christmas and the school summer holidays – and it is therefore no surprise that we have seen a significant rise in the number of new enquiries.
This year the September rush came early. The shift towards pre-Christmas separation enquiries demonstrates the enormous impact of COVID-19 on relationships. It is fair to say this has been a year to test even the strongest of marriages.
Below are the most common questions around divorce and separation that the firm has been asked in recent weeks.
Q.) Should I separate during a global pandemic?
A.) It depends entirely on a couple’s individual circumstances. There is uncertainty in relation to just about everything at the moment; the economy as a whole, the future of entire industries, jobs, investments and the value of people’s homes, so many will feel that taking the plunge and getting divorced in such an uncertain climate is just too risky. There will undoubtedly be others, however, who will see this as a perfect opportunity to get divorced during a recession when they believe the process is likely to cost them less. Often, a bad time for one party to divorce will be an opportune time for another.
Q.) Can you challenge child maintenance obligations during a pandemic?
A.) Child maintenance is always variable, up and down. If the paying parent loses their job and it seems unlikely they will secure alternate employment in the relatively short term and/or they do not have capital resources from which to cover the maintenance while new work is found, then this change in circumstance would justify a variation of child maintenance obligations.
Q.) What are the challenges you’ve seen around separated couples with children who live in different countries, and what advice would you give those who find themselves in this situation?
A.) The issues for international families, in particular, are wide ranging. In some instances, parents have been prevented from spending time with their children, either because they cannot travel to England or because their child cannot travel to them. For these families there has been an increased focus on indirect contact (via FaceTime, Zoom, WhatsApp) and, inevitably, discussions have led to questions of missed time being made up as and when travel restrictions are lifted.
Parents are to be encouraged to behave reasonably and to establish good lines of communication with their ex-partner. Undoubtedly, there will be parents who seek to use the lockdown and travel restrictions as an opportunity either to spend more time with their children or otherwise to restrict, whether reasonably or not, the other parent’s contact.
Parents should remember that if their dispute ends up in court, the judge will scrutinise each party’s conduct and assess whether they have acted reasonably in the light of the then-current government guidance and the particular circumstances of that child/family.
Q.) I rushed to move in with my partner during the first lockdown so that I wouldn’t be alone – is there anything I should do to protect my assets?
A.) Couples who rushed to move in together ahead of the first lockdown should consider entering into a cohabitation agreement to minimise the risk of financial dispute later down the line in the event of relationship breakdown. The same applies to couples who have had to postpone their weddings and are planning to purchase a property together in the meantime.
About Toby Atkinson
Toby advises clients in relation to a broad range of family law issues arising on the breakdown of marriage or cohabitation, with an emphasis on the financial claims that arise on divorce. He has particular experience of international cases, often involving jurisdiction disputes.
Toby has significant expertise in cases concerning highly contested contact arrangements. He is an experienced practitioner in the field of international child abduction and is regularly instructed in cases concerning applications under the Hague Convention, applications for permission to relocate and decisions about a child’s habitual residence.
On the non-contentious side, Toby regularly advises in relation to pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, cohabitation contracts and asset protection.
Toby is ranked by Chambers UK 2021 and Chambers High Net Worth 2020, with one interviewee commenting: “Clients love him because he’s unshowy but incredibly reassuring and sensible.”
He has been commended by The Legal 500 for his “superb work” and is described as a lawyer who “strives to achieve a peaceful resolution if there is one to be found whilst preparing to fight if required. His advice is thoughtful and measured and his judgement is sound”.
Toby was described by Spear’s Wealth Magazine as “unflappable” and “a sage family lawyer respected by peers for his client skills, work ethic and good judgement”.
He was named in the Citywealth Leaders List 2016, which described him as “fantastic with clients and a great tactician. He is equally adept at litigating outcomes in difficult cases as he is in negotiating bespoke solutions. I am quite sure he will be one of the industry leaders for years to come.”