Can’t pay or won’t pay? – what to do when your ex stops maintenance

By Peter Jones, Founder and Partner

Former oil trader Michael Prest has hit the headlines after being given a four week suspended jail sentence for failing to pay his ex-wife maintenance worth £360,000.

The High Court ruled that the 53-year-old, said to be worth almost £40m, had “wilfully refused or neglected” to pay his former wife Yasmin – despite spending more than £250,000 on holidays and £12,000 on tickets for a Justin Bieber concert.

And Mr Prest’s excuse? In a letter read out to the court, he said he had “engaged in the process, had not shirked responsibilities” and had taken care of his children, adding “I have not killed anyone, nor have I committed any crime… I have simply slipped on the accident of life.”

Not surprisingly, these excuses did not impress the court. As Ms Prest’s lawyer said, “This is a particularly bad case of wilful default and deliberate non-compliance to pay maintenance for the children,” despite being ordered by the court in 2011 to pay his ex-wife a lump sum of £17.5 million and annual maintenance payments of £300,000 a year.

While I welcome Mr Justice Moylan’s ruling, because it shows the family court is determined to enforce its orders, I am aware that many divorcees in this situation do not know what to do when payments are deliberately stopped.

As a follow up to our post on Child Maintenance Service, we hope the frequently asked questions below will help if you are in this situation.

What do I do if my ex won’t pay?

If the liability to pay child maintenance (or indeed spousal maintenance) is contained in a court order, the payee can take action to recover any arrears by applying to the court, which will choose the most appropriate method of enforcement. This will depend upon the financial situation of the payer and this will be examined by the court in order to determine which method of enforcement is most likely to achieve the desired result.

If the payment is through the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), they have various powers to recoup arrears.

How long before action can be taken in this situation?

If payments are stopped, this is likely to be in breach of the court order. At this stage there will most likely be maintenance arrears and enforcement proceedings can begin.

If payment is made through the CMS, then they will contact the ‘paying’ parent to find out why the payment has stopped and to arrange for it to be paid. They will then be given one week to comply.

What are the next steps?

This depends on whether there is a court order or a CMS assessment. If the maintenance was decided as a result of a court order, then you will need to go back to court. If it has been evaluated by the CMS, you will need to contact the CMS.

How common are such non-payment situations?

Unfortunately, in our experience non-payment occurs frequently – particularly in times of recession and financial strain, but also out of malice. However, there may also be a genuine reason for non-payment such as the payer losing his/her job.

Do you have any advice on preventing situations like this from escalating?

Maintain a sensible dialogue with the payer if at all possible, so that any issues can be discussed and solutions sought as they arise. However, we appreciate that this is not always possible.

If I owe maintenance and am in financial trouble – what do I do?  

Avoid burying your head in the sand and take advice immediately. This may include applying to vary the amount due to be paid and wipe out any arrears that may have built up.

Has your ex stopped paying you maintenance? What steps did you take? If you have any other questions about child maintenance that you would like answering, we’d like to hear from you so please call us on 0113 246 0055, leave us a comment below or drop us an e-mail.

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