The Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges for many people. New issues have arisen that require new answers. This is certainly the case for separated parents and the issue of childcare arrangements. Previously informal agreements may now face external pressures related to the regulations and effects of the nationwide lockdown.
Some key concerns for separated parents are likely to be a possible reduction in child maintenance due to a loss of income and managing contact arrangements during lockdown.
We set out some practical approaches to dealing with these issues.
Lockdown and the anxiety created by Covid-19 mean that normal contact arrangements are likely to become disrupted.
There are childcare concerns raised by the status of both parents, whether they can socially distance at work or at home, for example, or whether they are facing a period of self-isolation.
The UK government’s recent announcements regarding ‘support bubbles’ mean that two single-parent households can create a mini-network together, whereby both are able to transition between one another’s homes.
Are you entitled to restrict contact?
The Family Court has confirmed that previous childcare arrangements should continue, but each parent needs to exercise common sense and assess the risks. This means that children can move between the homes of both parents as long as it is safe to do so and that you are in full compliance of the government rules on staying at home and socially distancing.
The President of the Family Division has advised parents that:
“The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.”
If you have a Child Arrangements Order which sets out the contact and living arrangements then it is important that you continue with the agreement, unless there is good reason not to, such as one or more of the parties involved is in a period of self-isolation.
If you and the other parent agree to vary the Child Arrangements Order then you should record this in writing, with an email or letter. If you are unsure about the correct approach for your circumstances, then you should obtain legal advice.
Practical tips for co-parenting during lockdown
By planning ahead and communicating openly you can minimise potential conflicts and reduce the potential health risks. These tips could help alleviate some of the more common issues that arise between separated parents.
- Agree a shared narrative around Covid-19. If your children are particularly anxious, you may want to agree to avoid news broadcasts, or to limit the use of social media.
- Create achievable rules for dealing with hygiene. It’s best to agree on your children’s bathing routines and to promote the use of hand sanitiser and the washing of hands.
- Discuss what you will do if one family member exhibits symptoms associated with Covid-19 and the contact has to be stopped. Contact could take place via Skype, Zoom or another video platform. You could also hold regular phone calls or promote the creation of a home diary to share with the other parent once normal contact resumes.
- Remember that it’s important to be flexible and understanding. The Covid-19 pandemic is a stressful situation for all, and we should all be mindful that people may have external stresses to consider.
- Agree a time for discussing any child related issues, so that they are not conducted in front of the children.
- Visit the Cafcass website for useful tips on co-parenting during lockdown. This is a court advisory service.
The hope is that most concerns can usually be tackled with communication, but this is not always possible. If neither parent can come to an agreement on a matter, one option could be to settle the disagreement via legal remote mediation.
In mediation you and your former partner will meet with a trained, impartial mediator via Zoom (or via other suitable means) to discuss the issues. At Hodge Jones & Allen we are successfully conducting remote mediations, which can take place even if the couple are cohabitating.
Making child maintenance payments during lockdown
Child maintenance payments are either paid following an informal agreement between parents, a court order or an assessment by the Child Maintenance Service. Whichever way you usually pay, if your income has decreased and you are struggling to make payments you should take action as soon as possible.
The approach will be dictated by the type of agreement that you have.
Informal agreement – you should speak to your former partner and let them know about your financial position. Provide some documentary evidence, if you can, and try to negotiate a reduction for a period. If you are the receiving party, it is better to have an honest discussion about how much you will be getting rather than dealing with an unexpected non-payment.
Court order – if the court order is less than 12 months’ old then you will be in breach if you do not pay the set amount. You could ask your former partner if they would agree to a reduced amount or deferred payment, but this should be recorded in writing and you should seek legal advice before doing so. If you reduce the amount or stop payments altogether without the agreement of your former partner, then they are within their rights to apply for a court enforcement.
Child Maintenance Service (CMS) – you should contact the CMS directly and explain your circumstances. They will be able to reassess your liability. The current CMS stance is that if the income of the paying parent has reduced by at least 25% as a result of Covid-19, they could adjust the CMS payments due should they be notified of the change. Those on furlough receiving 80% of their salary are expected to continue to make payments in full. If you are the receiving party, you can apply to the CMS for enforcement of any unpaid child maintenance.
The most important point is to be honest about your financial circumstances. If you are in genuine hardship it is likely that there will be grounds for reducing your payments.
Whatever the issue, communication and consideration between both parents is crucial. Many parents find mediation provides them with the confidential setting in which to discuss their issues privately. For other parents, early legal advice will be the most sensible option if resolutions to new challenges cannot be reached.