Is the Economic Fallout From COVID-19 Affecting People’s Ability to Get Divorced?

While applications for divorce are surging amid COVID-19, a significant number of families are struggling to separate due to the pandemic's financial impact.

Elizabeth Hughes, specialist in family law at Parker Bullen, outlines the issues facing COVID-hit couples desiring a divorce and the possible avenues for funding available to them.

The current pandemic has put huge pressures on couples and families, putting even the strongest relationships under strain with reports from across the globe of a rise in marital break-ups and applications for divorce. Some even refer to a COVID ‘break-up boom’.

With job losses on the rise and the prospects of more looming, many people are struggling financially and therefore wondering how to pay for a divorce. With the average cost of divorce hovering around £15,000 this is no small concern. This problem is compounded by the fact that, since 2013, there has been a dramatic reduction in legal aid. Divorce numbers may be on the rise, but how many more divorces are being put off due to financial concerns?

We’re used to the media hype around ‘divorce day’, due to the big rush to divorce following the Christmas break. In reality, there are peaks and troughs during the year. However, the post-Christmas divorce peak is widely explained by the stress Christmas can cause some families – enforced family time plus the added pressures of preparation and celebration. The Christmas period is also commonly a time when people reflect on where their life is and where they’d like it to be, which in itself can be a catalyst for relationship breakdown. It’s not just Christmas that can lead to marital break-up; applications for divorce tend to rise after families spend a long time together, peaking after school holidays, for example.

COVID-19 magnifies all these issues and more. Spouses are being locked down together for weeks, maybe months. Young marriages are coming unstuck as couples face immense pressures early in their relationship. For those with children, there’s the added pressure of 24/7 parenting plus the challenges of home schooling. Moreover, financial worries – a common factor in divorce – are all too common. Some people are coming to terms with redundancy, others lower pay due to being furloughed and many more are worried about their jobs. In terms of the pandemic, vaccines undoubtedly provide light at the end of the tunnel. However, the economic fallout and therefore the financial impact on families could last for years.

COVID-19’s financial impact on marriage could well be two-fold – contributing to a rise in relationship break-ups now, as well as a rise in people putting off initiating divorce proceedings due to financial concerns. One of the many reasons I hear for clients’ putting off seeing a family solicitor is their “need to get finances sorted first”.

Where a couple can’t fund a divorce through private funds, what options are available? Currently, eligibility for Legal Aid is very limited, with it largely being preserved for victims of domestic abuse and Public Law child care cases. One option is a commercial loan or re-mortgaging, both of which can be advised by an IFA, an IFA can also advise whether a spouse is eligible for a litigation loan.  As many lawyers know, legal expenses insurance is a common bolt-on to car or home insurance policies so costs could be covered there. Additionally, a spouse could apply to the court for a Legal Services Order or Maintenance Pending Suit for non-legal fees.

Surely we need to make couples who may be struggling more aware of the funding options that are available to them. Otherwise, as we begin to emerge from this pandemic and the economy starts to recover it may not be a marriage boom we see, but a spike in divorce.

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