Casner & Edwards

Client Alert: What Happens to My Massachusetts Divorce Case in the Middle of the Coronavirus Pandemic?

By Molly Wilson Chung

Is the Family Court Open?

The Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts are open for business but are operating under Standing Order 2-20, a temporary emergency order which identifies the types of cases that will be handed during this time. The Court is operating with a reduced number of staff members and doing their best to provide the public with access to justice under these circumstances. In other words, the Courts are open for emergencies but temporarily closed for routine matters.

If you have an open divorce or custody case in the Probate Court with an in-person hearing that was scheduled between now and May 1, 2020, it will be rescheduled to a date after May 1st. The Court still has the discretion to hear certain matters where emergency or exigent circumstances exist, or telephonically, before May 1st. Each county is rolling out slightly different procedures, so it is important to contact your attorney about your specific case. You can also visit the Probate and Family Court’s website for updates as well.

What Happens to My Parenting Plan?

If you and your co-parent have a parenting plan issued by the Court, you should continue to follow the parenting plan to the extent that it is possible. Communicate with your co-parent about any concerns you may have directly, and as the situation changes with emergency government orders. Reassure your children that they are safe and do your best to communicate with your co-parent about any serious topics outside of the presence of the children. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers published some helpful guidelines for divorced and separated parents that you can consider and even share with your co-parent.  

If you or one of your children become sick during this time, you should communicate with your co-parent to attempt to come to an agreement relative to the care of the children. Follow the recommendations of your child’s pediatrician, and share any of the recommendations with your co-parent. If someone needs to be quarantined or hospitalized, contact your co-parent as soon as possible.

If you are able to agree on any temporary adjustments to the parenting plan during this time, ask your co-parent to agree on those terms in writing so that the Agreement can be filed with the Court.  If you find yourself unable to resolve a dispute with your co-parent, or you need help interpreting your parenting plan under these circumstances, you should contact your attorney to discuss your options.  

Can My Divorce Case Still Move Forward During This Time?

Yes! If you have an open case in the Probate and Family Court, you can continue to conduct discovery. If a case has not been filed with the court, you can still negotiate the settlement of your case. Contact your attorney to set up a call to discuss next steps and options for moving the case forward outside of Court. We expect that there will be a significant backlog of cases when the Courts reopen for routine business, so now is an excellent time to get back to the virtual negotiation table. You can settle your case now, and have your settlement Agreement approved by a Judge when the Court reopens for routine business.

Your attorney can also file a Complaint for Divorce electronically in order to start a divorce case during this emergency period.

What If I Lost My Job and Cannot Pay Support?

If you lost your job and you have an obligation to pay child support or alimony to any ex-spouse or partner, you should continue to pay support to the extent that you are able. You should also speak with an attorney about filing a pleading with the Court to reduce or terminate your obligation to pay support right away. If you are the recipient of child support or alimony, and you stop receiving payments, you can file a Complaint for Contempt with the court. Even if  your Motion or Complaint  cannot be heard right away, it may be an important step to preserve your rights to seek relief in the future.

If you are a business owner, it is important to understand what your rights and responsibilities are toward your employees, suppliers and customers.  You can find more information for business owners here and here.

With the passage of the Coronavirus Relief Bill, the CARES Act, you and your business may be entitled to relief to mitigate the financial stress you are under. Check back here for updates.

What If an Emergency Arises?

The Probate and Family Court will continue to hear requests for Restraining Orders and Orders to Vacate subject to the Standing Order 2-20, which will require most of the hearings to be conducted by phone or videoconference. If you file a Complaint for Contempt or a Motion for Temporary Orders now, in most cases it will be scheduled for hearing sometime after May 1st. The Judges have discretion to hear Motions that are deemed “emergencies” on a case-by-case basis.

When an emergency arises, speak with your attorney to discuss your options for relief. An experienced family law attorney may be able to help you avert a crisis, or identify an alternative solution that everyone can live with on a temporary basis.

Please contact the Family Law Group if you have any questions about this client alert.

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