The spread of COVID-19 has permeated nearly every facet of our lives and created new challenges not previously considered. Clients with family law issues are no exception and they now face unique circumstances that demand successful co-parenting and keen financial management. With access to justice compromised, parties should be equipped with strategies on how to manage financial uncertainty, child care, parenting plans, and medical decisions. Both lawyers and clients should also think about whether current agreements need to be modified and how to prepare for situations like this in the future.
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, domestic relations disputes related to the spread are on the rise. Whether it is parents arguing about treatment and quarantine plans, child support, dwindling retirement accounts, or if the parties should be transitioning the child/children back and forth between houses, there are many questions that are not addressed in current temporary orders, separation agreements or judgments. Moreover, while parties would typically have access to the courts to resolve outstanding issues, as of this client alert, the court system is effectively shut down and only open to address true emergencies. Accordingly, parties should not expect traditional access to justice. When disputes arise, parties should first look to follow the guidelines and orders of federal and local government in conjunction with any agreements, orders, or judgments currently in place. Included below are links to current guidelines and recommendations. Although your separation agreements, temporary orders or judgments may have some language regarding emergencies, it is unlikely that they will have clear language in terms of managing situations created by the impact of COVID-19.
For child-related issues, the health and safety of children should take priority and parents need to focus first on the welfare of their children. While COVID-19 certainly may not be used as an excuse to withhold parenting time, there are circumstances where modifications and adjustments to the parenting plan may be necessary. Parents will have to work together (or engage a third party such as a conciliator, mediator or parent coordinator) to ensure everyone is acting in the best interests of their children. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that failing to follow judgments or orders without justification may result in a contempt action. If circumstances do require the children to remain with one parent, the custodial parent should facilitate frequent communication between the non-custodial parent and the children and keep the non-custodial parent updated and informed. In addition, parents should begin working on addressing suitable make-up time if necessary. If medical decisions arise relating to the children and the parties have joint legal custody, they will need to find common ground as neither party can make a unilateral decision absent true emergency. Ultimately, successful co-parenting during these uncertain times will require hard work by both parties.
There are also significant financial ramifications stemming from this outbreak. Many invested assets are taking massive financial hits and parties are seeing their net worth disappear. Clients in the midst of dividing these assets need to pay close attention to the wording in their agreements or the Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) used to divide the assets. For example, many QDROs will include language regarding gains and losses during the process time of asset division, but others do not, and the parties may have agreed to a certain amount or a set date by which to divide the assets. It’s unlikely either of those circumstances would warrant a modification for the impacted client, but it’s a risk that clients need to be aware of when considering how to divide assets. Similarly, the economic impact of COVID-19 has resulted in a drop or complete loss of income for many clients. Changes to income can impact alimony and child support. Parties should discuss with their lawyer how their receipt or payment of support may be affected by these changes.
It is no doubt difficult for clients to find clarity on important matters such as parenting and finances in these uncertain times. Unfortunately, unique circumstances such as these do not have uniform answers. However, clients and lawyers alike would be wise to learn from this evolving situation and incorporate language regarding this type of event in future agreements.