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Lockdown divorce: how to uncouple (in a good way)

Has spending too long (read: most of 2020) trapped in the house with your partner made you question why the hell you’re together? You’re not alone. We spoke to local family law firm Lightfoots about how to move on to the next chapter

Lockdown divorce

No one on earth needs to be holed up in five rooms with their immediate family for months on end but hey, that’s what happened. Welcome to 2020! And while some of us may have cherished the relentless days of tedium that all merged into one another – sorry, I meant precious family moments – sending the kids back to school was a pivotal moment of release. But then, it was just you and him (or her) and you’re working from home and the kids aren’t here to provide a buffer and if he makes one more snarky pass agg remark you just might just walk into the garden and SCREAM.

So what should we do if it’s gone beyond daily irritation to Who are we? What is this? Why are we here? Muddy spoke to family lawyers and qualified mediators Gill Wright and Petrova Caldecourt from Lightfoots LLP for some answers.

So I think our relationship has run its course. What are the next steps?

Think about it. Is the relationship definitely over? If possible, talk to your partner and see whether they’re feeling the same and whether there is any benefit in getting some counselling, particularly if children are involved. Sometimes it’s possible for the relationship to be rebuilt and sometimes it isn’t. Also, get a decent knowledge of the family finances. Often in couples, one partner deals with the finances and the other lets them do it. If you’re the partner who has no idea of what goes where, now’s the time to get your head around it. Then, sit down and work out if you can decide how to divide things yourselves. At this point, it’s important for both parties to get some legal advice – you will need different solicitors – to understand what the situation is and what needs to be considered. Alternatively, approach a mediator who can speak to both of you together and will give legal information in an impartial way.

Divorce seems overwhelming. Can we just separate and be done with it?

One of the difficulties with separating as a married couple but not divorcing is that you legally remain married to each other. So if you move on with new partners, and then say, either you or your husband pass away, pensions and wills, for instance, will refer back to the original marriage, and not the people you share your life with. It’s never going to be pleasant to sort out finances and it’s never going to be easy, so in some respects, what’s the benefit in putting it off?

If you don’t face up to the financial side of things, it can get very complicated. A trial separation is fine for a period of six months or so but at the end of that, if the relationship has broken down completely, then we would more often than not advise a divorce over a separation because you can bring some finality to proceedings, which enables you both to move on. A divorce itself is actually quite a simple process that you can do online and solicitors or mediators will support you in that process. 

Both my partner and I agree it’s time to end the marriage. What should we do?

Go to mediation even because 9 times out of 10 there will be something you haven’t thought about or a ripple effect you haven’t considered. Mediation also can take the conflict out of proceedings: you’re working together as a team to find the best outcome for you and your family. And the children are absolutely central and the first priority.

The first port of call is to think about how you’re going to reassure the children that they’re the most important people to each of their parents, because the children look at mum and dad as one unit. When they separate, the children have to work out their new relationship with mum on her own and dad on his own. So, it’s putting yourself in their shoes: how do they feel?

And reinforcing that it’s not their fault, they are loved, and helping them have a relationship with each parent is really central. The Guide for Separated Parents by Karen and Nick Woodall is very practical and acknowledges and empathises with the feelings you’re going to have. It’s all too easy for the children to be caught in the conflict and it’s very damaging for them. And often when we talk about children, we think about young children but even if your child is an adult, a divorce will impact them too.

Will we have to go to court?

If you choose a mediation route or seek to resolve matters between you, no. Court is very much a last resort. But it’s a good idea to get all your financial agreements into a court order so it’s final – and that means both parties reach agreement, draft a document, then ask a judge to sanction it. Then it becomes legally binding.

What’s the damage financially? 

For mediation, it’s usually three to six sessions, so around £2k plus VAT. Then you’ll have your lawyer’s fees for making your agreements legally binding so add an extra £1k to that. The costs of mediation are shared between you and your partner. But even if a party feels that they can’t attend mediation for whatever reason, they still don’t have to go to court. Some clients say, “Oh I just can’t sit in a room with my former partner because I know he’s going to batter me down and I won’t get a good deal” so negotiations can be done through solicitors as well. That’s called settling by agreement and usually a little more costly – somewhere between £3-5K plus VAT but still cheaper than issuing court proceedings. And then on the other end of the spectrum, if you go right up to a final hearing at court, you could be looking at upwards of £20k (and them some) each. 

Ouch.

Well, sometimes that has to happen. If you simply can’t agree, a judge will do it for you. If a party says, for instance, “I’ve paid into my pension my entire working life and my ex isn’t having a penny of it” even though they’re entitled to it, then we may need to go to court. And while the fees can be eye-watering, you sometimes need to think of them as an investment for your future – particularly if it means you’re going to get a pension or adequate financial provision. It’s maybe better to incur those fees now and get set up for the future rather than not fight and be struggling for the rest of your days. All though it is all relative to individual circumstances; no two cases are the same.

What are my responsibilities to my co-parent?

Well, the court would view it as your responsibilities to your child. But yes, you can’t just up and move across the country with your children without coming to an agreement with the children’s other parent. It’s always a case-by-case basis: for instance, we had a case a few years back where a mother moved to the States with her children on the agreement that she paid into a fund to cover airfares for the father who stayed in England. But you have to keep considering the other parent and make sure you consult each other. It’s the basis of successful co-parenting and it’s the children who will benefit.

For example, you might think, “Oh I’ll take little Jonny on holiday to France next week. I don’t need to let his dad know.” Well, you do as it’s illegal to take a child out of the jurisdiction without the other parent’s permission; it’s child abduction. And secondly, you don’t know if your co-parent has something significant coming up that they’d like their child to be around for. There’s an app – OurFamilyWizard – which can help parents organise arrangements for their children, which is particularly helpful if communication is difficult.

There is also the wider family to consider. The children might have had relationships with aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins and you need to try to maintain them. That’s why in mediation we put children centrally. You need to ask: where do the children have those relationships? Who are the important people to them? And how is that going to affect how you separate?

My partner doesn’t want a divorce but I do. What are my options? 

Look at Resolution, an association of family solicitors, so you can find a Resolution solicitor who will be trained to find a way forward for both of you. Resolution solicitors sign up to a code of practice and are committed to working things out in a sensible and pragmatic way as far as possible. They can also give a dose of reality. If a client is adamant they don’t want a divorce, even though their partner does, a Resolution solicitor will be able to talk through the options and make it clear that in most cases, you can’t stop someone divorcing you so it’s better to move on positively.

Ok. What about timelines?

Well, even before Covid, the family courts have always been under a lot of pressure. If you went to a final hearing on finances, you might be looking at two and a half years. However, if you went down the mediation route – that just depends on client and mediator availability and getting all the necessary information together – perhaps a few months.

Any final words of wisdom?

Approach it calmly. Because usually, one you has been thinking about it for some months, potentially years, and reached the conclusion that you need to separate. And the other is often oblivious so it comes as a complete shock. Emotionally, couples can be in very different places. Part of the work mediators do is to help the party that’s further forward to come back a little while giving the party that’s behind time to get accustomed to the idea and understand that it may be the best way forward. We try to get people to the place where they can use the part of their brain that thinks rationally rather than the fight or flight impulse.

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