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COVID-19 Shutdown: The Challenges and Options for Parties in the Process of Divorce

by Dorothy O’Neil, Esquire

The COVID-19 shutdown has people asking a litany of questions, including what to do with children now that schools are closed, how finances will be impacted, how long the shutdown will last, what physical symptoms suggest COVID-19, etc. Unfortunately, divorcing families face an additional set of uncertainties during this confusing time. Many wonder if their divorce will be on hold until this is over. Some are faced with immediate issues that need to be resolved, but are unsure of their options. So what can separating or divorcing families do to move their divorce cases forward, rather than waiting months until the shutdown is over?

Talk to your attorney and formulate a plan
In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf issued a mandate closing law offices, but most attorneys are able to work remotely, and are still available to address your inquiries and concerns. Work with your attorney to formulate a plan to keep your case moving forward. This may include revisiting out-of-court settlement negotiations. Your attorney may also be able to suggest other resources to alleviate immediate concerns. For example, if you have children, and you and your spouse are struggling to agree on co-parenting issues, talk to your attorney about the use of parenting coordinators and co-parenting counselors, who are also able to work remotely. If you require more immediate relief from a potentially dangerous situation, your attorney may request an emergency conciliation or hearing with a judge. While courts are closed generally, emergency matters are proceeding, including Protection from Abuse cases.

Divorce Cases without Court Appearances
Your divorce case may just be at the initial stages, and you may not even have a scheduled court appearance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t move forward. Many, if not all divorce cases, require an exchange of financial documents in order for the attorneys to evaluate the marital estate, and assist clients with formulating a proposal to settle the divorce. Now would be a good time to identify what financial information your attorney may still need. Use the time at home to sort through financials, organize them, and send them to your attorney for review. This will help facilitate the proposal for settlement, which can be sent to the other spouse to begin the negotiation process, potentially resulting in an out-of-court settlement agreement.

Divorce Cases with Court Appearances
If your divorce case is already scheduled through the court system, your court appearance may be rescheduled. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an Order requiring all courts to be closed to the public until at least April 3, 2020; some local counties have extended this period beyond the April 3rd requirement. Recently, Governor Wolf extended all stay-at-home orders through April 30th, and continued the closure of all Pennsylvania schools and non-life sustaining businesses until further notice. As such, it is imperative that you speak with your attorney to see if your court appearance is proceeding, and if not, what delays you should expect and what options you have to mitigate those delays. You may find your spouse is just as anxious to know the outcome of the divorce, so leveraging the momentum may be a goal you equally share.

Finalizing your Divorce Amidst the Shutdown
If you are able to reach a final resolution to your divorce case outside of court, many courts are still permitting online filing, and all of the procedural documents to obtain the Divorce Decree can still be filed. While there may be delays, including a delay with the actual issuance of the Divorce Decree, the substantive work to complete the divorce can be accomplished remotely and oftentimes electronically.

Plan for the Re-Opening
If your divorce case requires additional opinions from professionals with expertise in other areas, now would be a good time to identify and retain those individuals to help ensure a smooth transition when businesses reopen. Like attorneys, many professionals are working remotely, including accountants, financial advisors, and business valuators. They may be able to meet with you remotely to discuss specifics of your case, as well as review relevant financial information and provide feedback. Other professionals, such as realtors and appraisers, may be restricted in terms of services they can provide, but researching, securing and establish a working relationship now can be a significant advantage once the shutdown is over.

Be Patient and Don’t Panic
It is true that this is a confusing and uncertain time, but most everyone is experiencing the same anxieties. The Courts are doing the best they can to limit the spread of COVID-19, and yet ensure that families are protected, particularly in emergency situations. This may be a time for you and your spouse to attempt to put aside your differences and formulate your own plan for co-parenting your children and ensuring that bills are paid. Temporary adjustments that may not normally occur may be the only option for now. Remember to stay calm. If you have children, they are also watching you and looking for a source of comfort. Keep in mind that, while this is a difficult and stressful time for everyone, this period of uncertainty can have a greater negative impact on your children.

It is unclear just how long the COVID-19 shutdown will continue, and while the situation is not ideal for those facing family matters, there are still legal options available. Clear communication with your attorney can alleviate apprehensions about your case and your next steps. As always, the Family Law attorneys at Burns White are here to help. If you would like to speak with us regarding your family law matter, we are still offering free one-hour initial consultations via telephone. Please contact 412-995-3107 to schedule your call.