How to pay private school fees is a major worry for many separating and divorced parents. In the post-COVID pandemic, parents are facing the prospect of reduced or zero income, possible redundancy and the challenges of keeping a business afloat. 

As a result, there will be difficult decisions to make about school fees affordability now and in the longer term. Tough decisions about finances may also need to be made in agreement with an ex-spouse as the co-parent, making things even more challenging.

So, how can we as legal professionals help clients who are concerned about payment of school fees in the post-lockdown economy? Here are five key areas to encourage clients to explore, to save them unnecessary stress and legal costs.

1. Contacting the school and asking for a discount

Some schools are offering discounts of up to 30%, and there are usually other options available such as:

• Fee postponements

• Staged payments

• Financial aid

• Future fee freezes

Clients may be initially reluctant or embarrassed to ask, but these options can make school fees more affordable in the short term.

2. Exploring bursaries and scholarships

Some schools have a range of bursaries and scholarships available for times of hardship. I have personally seen many clients successfully apply for bursaries and scholarships whilst their divorce is in progress. Schools are very much accustomed to parents having issues with payment during major family upheavals, and the current pandemic presents many of the same challenges.  

3. Keeping in contact with their ex

As a co-parent, your client needs to know if their ex-spouse is coping financially now and looking forward. This can be a difficult conversation for them to have. As legal professionals, we can help with formal letters, mediation and collaborative law approaches.

4. Joint liability for school fees

Most school fees contracts are in both parents’ names, so they have joint liability. Who actually pays what (and how) is usually stipulated in the divorce financial agreement. However, if a former spouse is in financial difficulties and the fees remain unpaid, their ex may not even know about it, but still be liable. Here again, communication between parents and school is key.

5. Child maintenance payments

Child maintenance is calculated from a person’s taxable gross annual income. So, whilst one party may have had a good financial year last year, there’s no guarantee of the same level of income for this year. If a client therefore uses some of their received CMS monies to pay school fees, they could be adversely affected. Clients may be tempted to rush to the CMS and ask for a reassessment. As family lawyers, we should urge them to take legal advice before applying, as payments can be adjusted downwards as well as upwards – or not changed at all.

School Fees Orders – the final option

Clients may be eager to pursue payment via a School Fees Order via the courts, but again I feel it’s very important to give clients the full picture. The family courts always have held the view that school fees are a luxury, not a necessity. Traditionally, the higher earning party usually covers the school fees. However, in the current climate, a judge will likely want to ensure that school fees payments are both affordable and sustainable.

With so many hearings being adjourned, and a backlog of cases building, clients should also be prepared for a longer wait. Therefore, with decisions needing to be made about autumn school fees very shortly, it is worth urging clients to seek ways to make arrangements between themselves without resorting to court if at all possible.