How divorcing couples can cut costs and speed up a financial settlement?

Katie O’Callaghan & Harriet Errington, family partners, Boodle Hatfield, 09/09/2020

In the months following the coronavirus outbreak, and the gloomy economic climate in which we now find ourselves as a consequence of the pandemic, many couples engaged in divorce proceedings may need to reduce their expenses and hasten through the process of dividing their finances. There are various steps that such couples may consider taking in order to cut costs and speed up the journey to a financial settlement.

1. Alternative dispute resolution

There has been a significant rise in recent years in couples seeking to achieve a private out-of-court settlement. The delays faced, particularly at present, by those seeking to litigate in the Family Courts can be off-putting. The emotional and financial cost, the threat of endless court hearings and discrepancies in the quality of the judiciary may also make litigation unattractive.

Mediation can be an effective way of resolving disputes, particularly discrete issues or practical problems, such as the day-to-day arrangements for children. The presence of a neutral third party to assist discussions between spouses often enables them to reach decisions that work for their individual family circumstances. Parties can seek independent legal advice alongside mediation which gives them comfort and reassurance along the way. Mediation is not, however, suitable, if there is a risk that one spouse will seek to hide assets; if there is a significant imbalance in power between the spouses; or a general lack of trust.

Arbitration is perhaps a less common, but a no less effective method of resolving such disputes. It involves jointly appointing an agreed arbitrator, accepting that the decision of the arbitrator will be binding, and relying on proper representation and advice throughout the process as if the matter was proceeding at court. However, the parties must accept that they will not have recourse to the appeals process which exists in the Family Courts. In today’s economic climate that may well be a risk that many couples are willing to take.

Perhaps a middle ground between mediation and arbitration, and one that is fast becoming the most preferred route both for spouses and their lawyers is to appoint a family law expert to act as a 'judge' and conduct a private negotiation hearing. Whilst this does not have the binding nature of arbitration, the view of an independent expert on the likely outcome if the matter were in Court is extremely effective at facilitating negotiations during the course of a day and often leads to a settlement.

Although all of these methods involve the payment of a fee for the third party, they often fasttrack the outcome, are cheaper than months of litigation through the Courts and put the spouses in control of the quality of their judiciary.

2. Sale of the matrimonial home

In these uncertain times, it may be that sellers would prefer to accept a lower offer on their property rather than hold out for their initial asking price. Though this may seem like a gamble, the consequences for divorcing couples of retaining their property whilst holding ...

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