Can You Get a Divorce During the Covid-19 Pandemic?
It is often said that the number of people looking to divorce or dissolve their civil partnership shoots up at the start of the year. This is commonly attributed to factors such as the end of the Christmas holiday season, the gloomy weather, and fresh motivation to look forward and make big life changes.
Divorce season 2021 also has added challenge of yet another coronavirus lockdown. Many couples are understandably feeling the pressure of living together 24/7 while also potentially facing financial troubles or juggling work and childcare commitments.
However, those feeling relationship strain at this time may also be anxious about doing anything about it. Starting the divorce or dissolution process, moving out of the family home, sorting out childcare arrangements – these tasks are challenging at the best of times, but during lockdown, the situation is likely be even more stressful.
Here, we set out to demystify some of key issues around separating during the Covid-19 pandemic, including:
- Whether divorce is even possible
- Moving out of the family home during lockdown
- Making a divorce financial settlement
- Working out childcare arrangements and co-parenting
Can you get a divorce during the coronavirus lockdown?
Yes, although divorce and dissolution applications are taking longer to process due to delays caused by Covid-19.
Family solicitors are still working normal office hours and are able to help people start divorce and dissolution proceedings. The only difference is that most will be working remotely to keep everyone safe, unless face-to-face meetings are essential.
The family courts are also open should it be necessary to go to court, for example, for a divorce financial order or child arrangements order. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has caused court backlogs to increase, so cases are likely to take longer.
For most separating couples, these differences will not cause major problems. If you and your partner both agree to the divorce or dissolution, the application process is more a paper exercise than anything and it is highly unlikely you will need to go to court.
Most couples are also able to sort out issues relating to finances and childcare arrangements without needing the court’s help (more on this below).
Moving out of the family home during lockdown
When you first break up with your partner, one of you may want to leave the family home or you may both want to sell it. But is this possible during the Covid-19 lockdown?
Unlike the first lockdown in March 2020, the housing market is staying open this time round. This means that people moving home – whether buying or renting – are allowed to attend viewings, go to meetings for legal purposes and physically move home. These activities, and anything else related to moving house, are counted as ‘reasonable excuses’ to leave your home and are therefore allowed under the lockdown rules.
Fortunately, this means that people do not need to stay ‘trapped’ in their homes after their relationship has broken down.
Working out divorce financial settlements during lockdown
What should happen to the family home? How should savings, investments and pensions be split? How are the bills going to be paid going forwards? These are just a few of the questions that need to be addressed alongside the divorce/dissolution application process.
Usually, couples are able to sort these matters out between themselves – with the assistance of their divorce solicitor and/or a mediator – and the court’s only involvement is to approve the resulting agreement. Alternatively, if the couple cannot come to an agreement, they can apply to court for a range of financial orders, for which they will usually be required to attend one or more hearings.
As with other activities related to divorce and dissolution, it is still possible to sort out your finances during lockdown, including:
- Solicitors will still be open to provide legal advice and carry out the practical aspects, such as sorting financial documents, assisting with financial negotiations, drafting your financial settlement and applying to court for a consent order
- Mediation is still available to help couples work through problems in a neutral, welcoming environment (although, like solicitors, they will probably be working remotely)
- The courts are still open to hear cases related to divorce finances, although delays are likely and applications should only be made if they are absolutely necessary
One of the many big unknowns about the pandemic is the overall effect on our economy. One risk is that investments, business assets and other assets may have dropped in value, reducing the couple’s financial resources. People are also more likely to be facing financial difficulties due to being temporarily out of work, on reduced hours because of childcare needs, or on leave through the Government Furlough Scheme.
This means that, more than ever, it is in a couple’s best interests to try to be flexible and work with each other to find a constructive solution without conflict.
The assistance of a specialist divorce lawyer can be invaluable in helping the couple explore fair financial arrangements within the context of the pandemic and their individual circumstances. It may even be beneficial to hold off finalising the financial settlement until the markets and each party’s personal finances are more certain.
Childcare arrangements during lockdown
Sorting out arrangements for children can be a highly emotive for everyone involved. The pandemic simply adds another layer of pressure for separating parents – precarious work situations, ‘stay-at-home’ orders, social distancing and school closures all seek to make managing childcare after separation incredibly difficult.
Under lockdown rules, children are allowed to move between their parents’ separate households. So, it is possible to make a parenting plan that relies on splitting contact.
However, it is important to be flexible and work closely with your co-parent. The guiding principle of child arrangements is that the children’s welfare must always come first. This means that, as far as possible, your arrangements should reduce any unnecessary risks to your children’s health and safety, for example:
- Consider creating a bubble with your co-parent’s household to reduce the amount of people your children come into contact with.
- Adjust arrangements to take into account home schooling requirements and manage conflicts with work commitments – under lockdown rules, informal childcare bubbles can be set up in addition to co-parent bubbles to allow family and friends to help with childcare. Parents can also continue to use childminders and early years settings as needed.
- If either parent is a keyworker, consider whether it is a good idea to limit contact until the risks are lower.
- Make use of technology where face-to-face contact isn’t in the children’s best interests, such as Zoom, Facetime, or other types of video software.
- If anyone in the co-parent or childcare bubbles shows symptoms or tests positive for coronavirus, follow the national guidance on self-isolating. This may mean temporarily suspending agreed contact arrangements.
What if you cannot agree about pandemic contact arrangements?
It can be frustrating when a co-parent will not meet you in the middle over arrangements for your children, not to mention scary if you suspect your co-parent is not following lockdown guidance properly.
If you are having difficulties coming to an agreement, or your co-parent is not sticking to your parenting plan or court child arrangements order, speak to your family solicitor straight away to discuss your options. This could include:
- Going to mediation to try to find a fresh agreement that works for everyone (this is likely to be remote via telephone or video call)
- Applying to court for a child arrangements order which will set out things like:
- Where your children should live most of the time
- How much contact they should have with both parents
- How contact should take place (for example, face-to-face contact or keeping it virtual via phone and video calls and other communication methods)
- If you already have a child arrangements order, applying to court to change it or enforce it
Speak to a specialist solicitor about getting a divorce, dissolution or separation during the Covid-19 pandemic
Getting a divorce, dissolution or separation during the Covid-19 pandemic may be daunting, but if it is the best option for you and your family, there is no need to hesitate.
The first step is to speak to a specialist solicitor about your options. They can help you find a positive way forward while keeping you and your children safe during this difficult time.