Caroline Holley: Safeguarding clients’ finances during a lockdown divorce

Lockdown may have been the straw that broke the camel's back for some couples heading towards divorce proceedings. Here Caroline Holley outlines a series of tips for advisers who are helping clients navigate ending a marriage during unusual times...

It has now been more than a year since Boris Johnson first announced that we were to “stay at home” and we are finally seeing the gradual lifting of restrictions.

Those restrictions imposed over the past year have placed couples under huge pressure and, sadly, for some that has resulted in the end of their relationship.

For those couples for whom separation has become inevitable, their advisers can help guide them towards a constructive solution using the following steps.

Consider counselling 

Counselling can help determine whether a marriage is really at an end, or whether a reconciliation may be possible. Most counsellors offer remote appointments, so the current restrictions should not prevent counselling from taking place.

Even if it doesn’t result in a reconciliation, counselling can help couples come to terms with the end of the marriage, can help reduce acrimony and provide couples with the tools to separate in the most amicable way possible.

Although this may not feel like it sits immediately within an adviser’s wheelhouse, having knowledge of counselling’s benefits means you can ensure that your client has explored all options before delving into the tricky terrain of a divorce.

Find space

Where a couple is having to continue to live together, it will help if they each have a private space somewhere in the house and agree not to invade the other’s space. If there are communal spaces that they both need to use, setting out some early ground rules will help to avoid conflicts arising.

Do some homework 

It is important that both spouses have a good understanding of the family finances, so that they can provide their solicitor with an accurate picture of the financial position.

It is also a good idea for couples, and their respective advisers, to read up on the divorce process, which should help them feel more confident when they take legal advice. There are several useful online resources including www.advicenow.org.ukwww.resolution.org.uk and www.citizensadvice.org.uk.

Solicitors’ websites are usually a good resource too.

Seek specialist advice

 There is no substitute for individual, specialist legal advice. Even where a couple has reached an agreement as to how they plan to split their assets, they will need a solicitor to draw up the paperwork and help ensure all the technical aspects are covered.

Clients should check that the person that they instruct is a member of Resolution – the national organisation of family lawyers. Members of Resolution are required to follow a Code of Practice that promotes the constructive resolution of family disputes.

Maintain the status quo

Advisers should steer their clients away from moving assets around, restricting their partner’s access to funds or increasing their spending in a bid to bolster a financial claim. This won’t be effective; courts will always look at the overall standard of living during the marriage, and it may reflect badly on them if the matter requires the intervention of the court.

Consider mediation

Mediation is an effective, constructive and cost-effective way of resolving disputes arising from the breakdown of a relationship without going to court. It provides a safe and private place for frank and open discussions between separating couples so that they can agree arrangements for their future.

The court system was already over-burdened, and the current Covid-19 pandemic has significantly worsened the position. It is clear that there will be significant delays for a long time to come. In contrast, mediation can begin straight away. This means that any issues that have arisen that need to be resolved quickly, for example, immediate living arrangements, can be addressed without any delay.

Keep legal bills to the minimum

Solicitors typically charge on the basis of time spent, so anything that can be done to save their time can dramatically cut overall costs. For example, it is very helpful if a new client provides a short summary of the background to their situation – potentially with the aid of their adviser – with a summary of their financial position. This will save time during any meeting itself, which can instead focus on key advice.

Marital breakdown and the consequent arrangements that need to be made, both practical and financial, can be incredibly stressful and emotionally very tricky.

By making clients aware of these important considerations and laying out their options at the early stages of separation, advisers can help reduce conflict, cost and stress for their client at what can be an incredibly difficult time.

Caroline Holley is partner at Farrer & Co