Coronavirus / COVID-19 is on all of our minds. We’re following CDC guidance; we’re washing our hands, we’re sanitizing the surfaces we touch, stocking up on disinfectant, and hoarding toilet paper. (Why toilet paper? Why??)
What you might not be thinking about (yet) is how coronavirus could impact your divorce process. Which is why I’m here with this Q&A about how to prepare yourself if and when the time comes that coronavirus does start to impact your divorce:
I’m quarantined due to coronavirus/COVID-19, but I’m in the middle of divorce negotiations with my ex. How do we move forward if I can’t even leave the house?
Actually, if you’re working through Hello Divorce to complete your divorce, you’re already set up to complete the entire divorce process without leaving your house. You and your ex can complete your divorce paperwork, including financial disclosures, online via our Divorce Navigator, at your own pace, from wherever you want. And, our Divorce Plus and Divorce with Benefits packages will continue as usual, with a legal document assistant preparing all of your divorce documents for you and then sending them for you to sign digitally via our e-signature tool. You (and your ex) can also access our flat-rate legal coaching and mediation services by phone, video, text or even online chat – all from the comfort of your own homes.
If you’re using a traditional lawyer or your own mediator, you should feel free to ask for a phone or video consultation to keep negotiations moving forward. Most firms are set up to provide these services to their clients.
What will happen to my divorce case if I have to go to court, but my ex or I get sick with coronavirus/COVID-19 before our appearance?
It goes without saying that if you have (or think you have) coronavirus, you should not appear in court. As of today, the California courts remain open – but that could change.
If you get sick several days in advance of your court date, you should contact your spouse to find out if s/he will agree to a continuance. Assuming they have even an ounce of integrity, they will agree and the two of you can submit a form requesting that the court change your hearing to another date. If not, you should contact the court clerk in the courtroom that you have been assigned and let him or her know that you are sick.
Another option in many courts is to appear by “court call,” which typically requires sign-up through a third party provider. You usually need to get permission to appear by telephone, but that requirement may be suspended in light of coronavirus.
One thing is (unfortunately) certain: most courts have not yet embraced technology to the point that remote work is possible for personnel and judges. So, if they close down you should expect serious delays.
Sometimes local courts have different instructions, so it’s a good idea to call the general line for the family law clerk to find out what those are. And, finally, if you are in California, you can check this link to find out if the court is even open.
If you wake up that morning with symptoms, call your doctor first, and then your lawyer (if you have one). If you don’t, contact the court per instructions above.
Of course, the good news is, if you’re working with Hello Divorce, our goal is to keep you out of court altogether. So, if you’re starting the divorce process now and just assume you’ll have to appear in court, that’s not necessarily true; we’ll do everything in our power to work with you and your ex to keep your case out of the court system.
RELATED: The Hello Divorce Podcast: Navigating Divorce & Co-parenting During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Could the California court system close down due to coronavirus/COVID-19? What would that mean for my divorce case?
Yes, the courts could close. And, in fact, it is very likely. It’s important to check this link for updates on the California court system and any instructions they provide. It is likely that once court is back in session, cases will continue with court dates as scheduled, and the cases that were missed will be rescheduled with a notice being sent to you from court. So, make sure you have your correct address on file with the court. We don’t entirely know how this will be handled yet, but do check back on this blog and we’ll update you as more information surfaces.
As an alternative to the California court system: you could also consider appointing a private judge to handle your case, or work with an online mediator – of course, provided your ex agrees.
Update 3/13/2020: You can find court information and coronavirus/COVID-19 updates for every state at this link.
My job is at risk / my small business has already taken a huge hit from coronavirus / COVID-19. Can I adjust child and support payments now? Can I adjust payments based on my projected losses?
Your best course of action is to talk to your ex directly and explain the situation. We’re entering new ground as a nation and many of us will suffer the economic impacts of this virus. Many of us are feeling the impact already. So: make honesty your policy, and make it clear to your ex that you want to maintain communication during these uncertain times, and that you plan to readjust payments when business picks up again. Probably also a good idea to demonstrate that you’re making adjustments in your own daily life, to demonstrate to your ex that you’re also making sacrifices to try to continue support payments as normally as you can. But, in general, keep in mind that any adjustments made to spousal and child support payments will need to go through the court to become enforceable.
If direct, straightforward conversation is not an option for you and your ex, then you might consider filing a motion with the court to preserve the right to modify support back to the date your income took a hit. You may not get a court date to make this adjustment immediately, but hopefully when you do you’ll see some financial relief.
Also, if you and your ex can come to agreement on support adjustments between now and a future court date, a stipulation can be prepared and filed so that no court appearance is necessary. If you go this route, keep in mind that the agreement must be in writing and prepared as the court requires. If you need or want help, Hello Divorce has lawyers and legal document assistants who are ready to help. (Request a quote here.)
What will happen to the kids if I get coronavirus/COVID-19? How will that affect my shared custody agreement? Will I be able to make up my lost visitation time with them after I’m healthy again?
Legally speaking, it’s all going to go back to your co-parenting agreement. If you have concerns about that now, you should bring them up with your ex and suggest amending your agreement. Being proactive about this now will save you worry, concern and heartache later, if this becomes an issue for you.
What happens if one of our kids gets coronavirus/COVID-19?
Once again, this is a scenario that you and your ex should discuss now. In theory, when you agreed on your co-parenting agreement, you discussed procedures to follow if your child gets hurt or needs medical treatment. That process will stand if one of your children contracts coronavirus.
What you probably didn’t plan for is where that child should stay should they be quarantined. This is a conversation to be having with your ex now.
A few things to consider: If you have more than one child, you and your ex may wish that the healthy child reside in one home, while the other parent cares for the sick child. Or, if one of you lives with an aging parent or someone else in a high-risk category, you may decide that the children (who likely interact with more people at school than the aging parent does in your home) should reside with the other parent, to prevent even the possibility of bringing home and spreading the virus.
How do we handle co-parenting with school closures due to coronavirus/COVID-19?
A school closure would typically be viewed similar to a Monday holiday – but definitely look to your child custody agreement if you have one. What does it say about how to handle things when the kids are sick or when there’s no school due to a teacher workday or a single-day holiday? That can be a guide.
And of course, work with your ex. Talk. Communicate. Agree that in all of this uncertainty the one thing that will remain rock solid is your commitment to making sure your kids are safe, happy, and know they are being taken care of.
I don’t really want to escalate things. But what if my ex is taking health risks, or not taking coronavirus/COVID-19 seriously enough in a way that could impact the health of our kids?
If you are really, truly seriously concerned about your ex’s ability to safely co-parent, you should seek legal guidance right away. If your ex has come into contact with the virus or puts themselves in risky situations, a lawyer can advise you on how to handle the situation and keep your kids safe.
If you’re in California, Hello Divorce can help. You can book legal coaching support in as little as 30-minute increments.
Of course, what we all hope is that this won’t be as awful as we are worried it will become. If you find yourself now homebound (i.e. telecommuting), but still healthy, maybe this is a good opportunity to start focusing on your divorce. If divorce is where the relationship is headed, it’s better to just move forward than stay in limbo; here’s why. However, please note that assets could be significantly impacted (think: temporary decrease in value) so you might want to consider a new strategy or approach. As an example, if you were planning to use your stock portfolio to ‘buy out’ your spouse’s interest in property, that option may not be available to you now. Be flexible or “wait it out” – depending on the specific circumstances of your case.
These are uncertain times for all of us. Frankly, it feels like a weird science fiction novel where we’re all planning for and preparing to battle an enemy we can’t see. But as history has shown us, uncertain times can bring us together, too. Which is why honest, open communication with your ex – even if you’re not friendly toward one another – about the “what ifs” is so important. Now is the time to get clarity and agreement on how to proceed with paperwork or negotiations; how to make adjustments if one or both of you takes a hit financially, and how your co-parenting might need to change in light of the virus and extreme measures of caution being taken worldwide.