Whether you call it the Coronavirus or Covid-19, there is no doubt it has descended on us with very little warning and changed our daily lives in significant ways. Both health concerns and the economic impact have had a ripple effect that has carried into divorce and family law litigation. The long-term effects are still unknown, but several immediate effects to divorce and family law litigants can be identified:
1. Courts are postponing many scheduled hearings, trials or status conferences in existing cases.
Initially, it appeared that some hearings would be converted from the in-person proceedings at the courthouse that had been the norm to hearings conducted via conference call. However, depending on the nature of the dispute that may not be a functional approach. As well, not all judges are equipped or willing to proceed in that fashion. It depends on the Judicial District involved whether rescheduled dates can be set now or whether that process won’t begin until some later date. While litigants often suspect that the opposing party or their lawyer had a hand in engineering a delay – that is not the situation we are facing now.
2. Large sectors of the business world have been literally shut down to avoid the virus spreading.
The restaurant, travel and entertainment industries are among those affected. People who work in these sectors may have suffered a drastic reduction or complete loss of income. If maintenance or child support orders were based on the pre-Covid-19 income level, they may be unable to pay their support obligations. In turn, the support recipients may have suffered their own loss of employment income and feel the pinch of non-payment more severely than at other times. While immediate modification or enforcement proceedings in court may not be available, there are certainly measures lawyers can still take to collect the relevant information and attempt to negotiate an interim resolution. In addition, those steps will generally be the same ones as the courts would require before addressing the matter.
3. The volatility in the stock market may have caused significant changes in the values of retirement of investment assets.
When those assets are the subject of negotiation in a pending divorce case, significant reevaluation may be necessary to ensure that the effects of the market swings do not unfairly impact one party more than the other. A plan everyone thought would be workable a few weeks ago may no longer provide the anticipated result.
4. When domestic violence in involved, the need for immediate court intervention involves issues of physical safety.
For the most part, the courts remain operational to address such issues on an emergency basis.
Fortunately, much of the court system was already operating with an electronic filing system in place. This means new cases can still be filed. In addition, certain types of motions can be filed, responded to and determined by the court without the need for anyone to set foot in a courthouse. As well, the courts continue to grant divorces and review and approve agreements submitted by the parties and their lawyers. Also, many lawyers and mediators have begun the extensive use of teleconference and video conference approaches to client meetings, meditations and the other major steps involved in moving cases forward.