Covid’s divorce catalyst
Breaking up could cost you your home and more – so don’t rush in unprepared
The pandemic has triggered a surge in break-ups worldwide - with some Irish solicitors seeing the number of inquiries about divorce and separation jump by almost a third since the crisis began.
The spike in cases is largely as a result of the increased strain which the enforced confinement of the ongoing Covid lockdowns - and the financial pressures of pandemic induced unemployment - has put on many relationships.
Sinead McNamara, a partner with the Cork solicitors, Fitzgerald Legal & Advisory, has seen a 30% jump in the number of inquiries about divorce and separation over the last year. Family law expert Muriel Walls has also seen an increase in the number of couples seeking to go their separate ways with most inquiries coming from two types of couples; older couples who have reassessed their priorities in life during the pandemic - and younger couples who have come under increased strain.
"Older couples have said that the pandemic has made them reassess what's important in life - that is: living simply, having good friends and not being in a relationship that's just not working or not giving them any happiness," said Walls. "The pandemic has proved to be a catalyst for such break-ups."
Meanwhile, the younger couples "are stressed and strained between trying to get on the property ladder, dealing with money problems and the demands of home schooling."
1. Financial toll of break-up
Divorce or separation takes a huge financial toll on couples. "Ordinary people need to be fully aware that they are going to feel financial pain and a diminution in their standards of living," said McNamara. "With a divorce or separation, one income pool has to support two households going into the future. So it's the same pot with the same income and the same level of debts and outgoings."
Sorting out the living arrangements after a divorce or separation can be problematic and can put huge financial strain on one of both partners - particularly if the only property owned by the couples is the family home and there isn't enough equity in the home to warrant a sale.
"If one party is staying in the home and the other party is moving out, without the option of selling the home, the party moving out may have to rent for a good few years until the youngest child is no longer dependent on the parents," said McNamara.
"However, if the party moving out is still contributing to the mortgage on the family home - which is often the case, he or she may have to go on rent supplement." (Rent supplement is a means-tested State payment for certain people living in private rented accommodation who cannot afford to pay their rent from their own resources.)
The financial fallout of a break-up will usually force couples to change their financial priorities and future plans. "You usually either have to trim costs to the bone - which means you scrap the holidays, the eating out and so on," said Walls. "Or one party goes back to work to a greater level than before. If you're planning to send your children to private school, you may not be able to afford to do that if you're separating."
Even if you can stay in the family home as part of a divorce settlement, the financial constraints of the break-up could mean you can no longer afford to live there.
"The upkeep of the family home may be too expensive - and so someone may want a fresh start in a home that's cheaper to maintain," said Maeve Corr, principal of Corr Tax and Financial Solutions.
2. Limiting financial toll
There are ways to limit the financial fallout of a break-up. "Sorting out the arrangements of the children is an essential first step and has an extraordinary impact on what happens on the financial front," said Walls. "If a couple can't agree on children, they won't be able to agree on the house, car and everything else."
Custody and access are clearly the first issues to tackle around children. "The other aspect is how the children are going to be financed - the childcare or college fees, the grinds and so on," said Walls. It's important to come to a fair and workable arrangement around how such costs are covered.
Maintenance payments for dependent children (typically children under 18 years of age or up to the age of 23 if in full-time education) will be a key element of a separation of divorce agreement.
A spouse will also often receive maintenance payments, particularly if he or she has been financially dependent on the other. "Don't just accept maintenance payments as they are - ensure the maintenance payments are inflation- protected because the cost of living increases over time," said Corr.
As the legal bills for a divorce could run into tens of thousands, try to come to an agreement on as much of the elements of a divorce as possible before hiring a solicitor.
You can do so through a mediator. The State's Family Mediation Service - available through the Legal Aid Board - is free and is not means-tested. There are also some community bodies that offer free mediation services. You can hire a private mediator though you will need to pay for such mediation so it is important to shop around. You can typically expect to pay between €100 and €150 an hour at least to see a private mediator - with some charging up to €400 an hour. Some mediators will charge per session or per day.
"Nettles have to be grappled with but if you want the cheapest separation process possible, go to an expert for an hour or two to see how you will get the kids through the break-up," said Walls. "Then go to a family mediation service. Limit the legal input to recording what the couple have decided through mediation."
There will be some cases where solicitors need to be heavily involved in a separation or divorce, making high legal fees unavoidable. Keeping the relationship between the separating spouses as non-confrontational as possible - and being realistic about solutions to break-up issues - will also help alleviate costs.
3. Pandemic delays
Be realistic about how quickly you will be able to come to a divorce or separation settlement in the midst of a pandemic. "The pandemic has slowed down settlements and the finalisation of arrangements," said Corr. Many separating or divorcing couples are caught in a backlog as a result, according to McNamara.
The pandemic will also mean that many couples simply can't afford to go their separate ways. "There are people who have lost their jobs and who are therefore not in a position to move on," said McNamara. "Many people today have no certainty around their incomes going forward - so they will be very slow or fearful of taking steps to regularise their marriage."
Such delays could however give a couple the time they need to save their marriage. "The ending of a marriage isn't something to be taken lightly", said McNamara. "Counselling should be tried. If the marriage is over, the marriage is over but be absolutely certain that the marriage is broken down before you go down the family law route".