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Co-parenting and maintenance payments during lockdown

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We are all currently adjusting to a new way of life since the coronavirus pandemic led to country wide lockdown, and it is vital that parents are there to support their children through these troubling times.  This can be difficult if you are no longer in a relationship with the other parent and you have contact arrangements in place; Robyn Finnegan, Solicitor within our Family Law team, discusses here the most recent guidance that has come from the Government regarding co-parenting, what you should do if you find yourself struggling with maintenance payments, and offers some practical tips to keep your children at the forefront of any decisions.

Can I see my children during lockdown?

Where parents are living in different households, the Government has clarified the advice on how to approach co-parenting.  Children under 18 whose parents are living apart can move between the homes of their parents, in an exception to the mandatory stay-at-home rule for us all.   There should be some consideration given, such as the health of all concerned, the risk of infection and how and where any handover takes place.   If one parent is a key worker, then it may be sensible for the other parent to look after children, to reduce infection risks.     

If, for any reason, a child will not spend their scheduled time with one parent, the Family Courts expect regular contact to be maintained through other means, such as FaceTime or Skype.  Your child may not wish to do this as it is understandably not as good as face to face contact, so if you do struggle to get young children in particular to agree to this, try and incorporate other parts of their daily routine into the call, such as reading them a bedtime story. 

Importantly, any variation to current arrangements should be agreed between you, and put in writing wherever possible, whether a letter, email or simply a text exchange.  Guidance says that "the Court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the stay-at-home rules in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family".

“Where there is a disagreement on arrangements, we would always recommend that you seek legal advice,” comments Robyn.  “Whether for enforcement or to apply for a change to the contact arrangements, Court hearings are continuing, although the default is via phone or video link, and we are also still available to discuss your current situation over the phone, via email or video conferencing.”

The most important thing for children is that parents avoid conflict, which may be difficult but should be strived for, and you shouldn’t unnecessarily use lockdown as an excuse to keep a parent away from their children as this could have a detrimental effect on longer term collaboration as well as the health and wellbeing of your children. 

“We would always remind parents to consider how their children are feeling during this pandemic,” continues Robyn.  “They are out of their normal routine, missing school and seeing their friends and they will be worried about what the virus means, so keeping conflict to a minimum with the other parent and making the decisions for them is so important.  Try not to ask them to decide whether they want to go to the other parent or see them on FaceTime or Skype, as it will then put pressure on them to decide and feel guilty about whether they are hurting a parent.”

Lockdown impact on maintenance payments

If you are required to make, or are reliant on, maintenance payments, you may be concerned about your ability to make these during this crisis, particularly if you have been furloughed, lost your job or had to take a reduction in salary.  In this situation, it may be possible to ask the Family Court for a variation on payments under a maintenance order where there has been a material change in circumstances.  Going back to Court can be a costly procedure and the best starting point would be to see if you can reach agreement between the two of you, while exploring other sources of income and benefits.  

It’s worth appreciating that a fall in income may not justify a change in arrangements, as maintenance is needs-based and the needs of both parties and any dependent children will be evaluated.

If you are the one receiving maintenance payments and you lose other sources of income during the current crisis then you can ask for a variation due to changed circumstances but the Court will first expect you to take reasonable steps to secure other sources of income, such as applying for relevant Government coronavirus schemes.   If it’s likely to be just a temporary situation, then have a conversation and put everything in writing. 

Robyn concludes, “We would always recommend that you seek legal advice, whether you are paying or receiving, and avoid getting into a situation where you are in breach of a Court Order without having tried to resolve the problem.  We are currently working remotely and can assist you with any questions or concerns you have about the relationship with your children and any maintenance payments.”

To discuss your situation with Robyn, you can call her today on 023 8071 7717 or email robynfinnegan@warnergoodman.co.uk.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.