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Divorce, Family Law, and Coronavirus

Many states have witnessed an increase in divorce rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. The stress in this situation often exacerbates pre-existing tensions in a relationship, especially when shelter-in-place orders require a couple to spend much more time together than they would normally. If a couple decides to get a divorce, they should be aware that family courts in most states and counties have significantly reduced their operations. Some courts are open only to handle emergencies, such as situations involving domestic violence or child abuse. These hearings may be conducted by Zoom or other video conferencing systems. Non-emergency proceedings, such as some new divorce cases, may need to be postponed.

However, this does not necessarily mean that a couple cannot get a divorce. If the spouses can reach an agreement that resolves all the issues related to the divorce, they may not need to appear in court because their divorce will be uncontested. Judges are generally willing to sign a divorce order based on this type of agreement, even during court closures, although some courts still require at least one in-person appearance in an uncontested divorce. If the spouses cannot reach an agreement on all the issues, they may want to seek assistance from a mediator. This is a neutral third party who does not make binding decisions. Instead, the mediator facilitates a discussion between the spouses and helps them reach an agreement that they can submit to the court for approval.

Child Custody and Parenting Time During COVID-19

The laws related to divorce and child custody have not changed in the unusual circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. This means that a parent cannot unilaterally modify a child custody or parenting time agreement without going to court. If this is not an option in their area due to court closures, the parents must maintain the schedule that was in effect prior to the outbreak unless they agree on a modified arrangement.

Transferring children between parents can expose them to an unnecessary risk of contracting the virus, especially if the parents do not live in the same area. Both parents may recognize this issue and work together to address it. If the parents have an amicable relationship, they may be able to agree on a temporarily modified custody arrangement. For example, they may agree to allow a child to spend more time with the parent who currently lives with them, in exchange for spending more time with the other parent later in the year. The parent who lives with the child also may agree to schedule video conversations between the child and the other parent. If you adjust your agreement with your ex-spouse or co-parent, you should put any changes to the agreement in writing and keep a hard copy of the revised agreement.

On the other hand, parents who feel hostile toward each other may not be able to reach an agreement. While you may have serious concerns about the health of your child, you should be aware that violating a custody order can result in a finding of contempt of court and other adverse consequences. Judges frequently reduce the custody or visitation rights of a parent who refuses to comply with a parenting time order, even in relatively extenuating circumstances. Instead of taking this risk, parents may want to consult a mediator who can help them work out a notarized temporary modification to their parenting plan. While the modification will not become an enforceable court order until a judge reviews it, a mediator can work with the spouses and possibly their attorneys to craft binding stipulations that take effect when they are signed. If the modifications are meant to be temporary, the agreement should state clearly that the original terms of the parenting plan will resume after the COVID-19 emergency ends.

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