Covid-19 is the X factor in legal battle between wealthy exes

The Economic Times 

MUMBAI: The pandemic rewrote so many rules, it was inevitable it would do the same for the usual bitter battle of separated spouses.

Before the world knew, an ex-partner of a wealthy person wouldn’t budge from a Rs 100 crore settlement claim, a lawyer said. But post-crisis and economic bad news all round, the claim came down to mere Rs 55 crore, with some artwork and a nice car thrown in — and the divorced couple separated happily ever after.

Lawyers specialising in divorce  and separation cases of the well-off and the seriously wealthy told ET there’s increasing recognition in estranged partners that paying capacities of ex-spouses have been hit and that a lower settlement is the smart thing to opt for.

So, maintenances and alimonies, once bitterly fought over, are being renegotiated. Rajesh Narain Gupta, managing partner of law firm SNG Partners said, people are approaching lawyers because they can’t pay the earlier agreed maintenance.

As per laws, either party can approach the court for modification of interim maintenance order under changed circumstances. “Mostly men are coming to renegotiate due to financial constraints,” said Ishika Tolani, practising advocate at Family Court in Mumbai. “Contested petitions were converted into mutual consent petitions during the Covid lockdown, women have agreed to a ‘reasonable alimony’, lower than earlier,” she said.

Business is brisk, lawyers say. Though there’s no data, an indicative statistic is that the online platform for finding and hiring lawyers, LawRato, saw around 50% more queries on divorce since March 2020. The pre-Covid average monthly inquiry was around 50,000. Most queries are coming from top cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Zulfiquar Memon, managing partner of law firm MZM Legal, recounted a case where the cash component of the settlement was replaced with an immovable property, a farmhouse and an apartment in Mumbai’s upscale Bandra.

‘Focus on practical solutions’
Even the middle class is back at the negotiation table. Citing another renegotiation, Memon said an EMI burden shared between a separated husband and wife was shifted to the husband when the wife lost her job in the lockdown.

Memon also said when the warring sides were not able to come to new settlement terms, they have opted for staggered payments of the pre-Covid amount or deferred the settlement process for a year.

Sometimes, separated spouses take steep cuts. Tolani recounted a case, where she was advising a husband, that saw the ex-wife’s Rs 1 crore demand settle at Rs 15 lakh after the lockdown shut down the husband’s business — running a lounge bar.

“We have seen more divorces taking place during the pandemic and lockdown but they are calmer affairs… both parties are seeking practical solution over ego battles,” said Sameer Tapia, senior partner of ace law firm ALMT Legal. But “children and household expenses haven’t usually been changed,” he said.

That renegotiation from Rs 100 crore to Rs 55 crore plus artwork and a plush car — that was Topia’s case.

Before the pandemic hit us, no self-respecting ex-spouse of a wealthy person would have ever given up Rs 45 crore. The Covid crisis, lawyers say, has made for happier divorces.