7th January 2020

Separating and keeping things together: The Ultimate New Year’s challenge

It sounds flippant, but it is a fact that there are a lot of relationship breakdowns in January. “Black Monday” or “Divorce Day”, the supposed day of highest demand for Divorces, is something of a myth, but there is no doubt that January is something of a peak time for relationship breakdowns.

It should not really be a surprise: Christmas seems to be becoming ever more stressful every year: the cards, the presents the children simply must have, the huge volume of food and drink to be prepared, having to spend time with relatives, being stuck indoors as the weather is horrible, and the cost of it all….

That would put pressure on any relationship. Furthermore, often people who have already decided they want to end the relationship put off doing so until after Christmas, for understandable reasons. Sadly, it all adds up to a lot of breakups in January.

Deciding to end a long-term relationship, whether it is a marriage, a civil partnership (now available for all couples) or a cohabiting relationship is never easy. It takes a lot of courage to recognise when a relationship is just not working and sorting it all out, whilst keeping all the day-to-day stuff going at the same time, can seem overwhelming. So, how do you deal with a separation whilst keeping everything else together? Absolutely the best thing to do in all cases is to take some early expert legal advice.

The legal situation varies dramatically, depending on whether you are married/in a civil partnership, have children or not, or are just in a cohabiting relationship: be aware that there is no such thing as a “common law husband/wife”, so cohabiting couples may find they have no legal protection at all.

Whatever your situation, before you do anything else, it is advisable to go and see a professional family lawyer to understand your options. Any consultation is totally confidential, so your partner or spouse will never know anything about it, and you do not have to do anything further, if you do not want to: just because you have seen a lawyer does not mean you have to do anything further.

There are a lot of misconceptions about relationship breakdown, and a lot of misleading articles in the press and on the internet. Taking early advice can avoid mistakes which are very costly (both financially and otherwise) and help achieve the best result, minimising costs and upset, particularly any “collateral damage” to the children, which should always be the first concern.

Many firms of solicitors will offer a free initial or discounted first meeting and many Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and Law Centres will offer a free appointment with a solicitor. Watch out for advice companies who are “online only” or not actually solicitors: solicitors are heavily regulated and insured.

Good family lawyers will almost certainly also be able to recommend a counsellor: this can be a huge help if you are not sure what you want to do – which is totally normal – and also for dealing with the split (particularly with children) in the least upsetting way. Remember that you may be totally sure you want to separate immediately, but your spouse or partner may have had no idea that there was any problem, no matter how obvious it is to you: that can lead to unnecessary fights if not handled carefully.

Splitting up does not have to be a battle by any means – you do not have to go to Court and there are many tools to help reach an agreement, if you cannot do it yourselves with the support of lawyers and counsellors. Have a look at https://www.macdonaldoates.co.uk/practice-areas/family-law/alternatives-to-court/ for some options. However there is no substitute for talking it through with a specialist family lawyer. Consider using a lawyer who is a member of Resolution: that means they have committed to avoiding unnecessary upset and cost: https://resolution.org.uk/find-a-law-professional/

Above all, do not rush any decision or action, and do take some early advice – you do not have to follow it, or follow through on it, but it can save a great deal of damage, upset and cost.

Tim Melville-Walker and Nisha Tayal.

Tim is a solicitor, collaborative lawyer, family law arbitrator and Deputy District Judge. He is the head of the family department at MacDonald Oates Solicitors.

Nisha is specialist family law solicitor and consultant at MacDonald Oates Solicitors.