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The Impact of COVID-19 on Family Law

By Aleksandra J. Kocelko, Esq.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have most people telecommuting, purchasing essential items and practicing social distancing, the impact on family law cases can be far-reaching. From delays in the court process, to custody struggles, to fear about financial implications, parties may be concerned as to how to navigate these unique circumstances in their divorce, custody or support matters.

Court Delays
As anyone who has gone through the courts for family law matters knows, it can be a lengthy process. This process has only gotten longer as a result of the current pandemic. Many courts were closed entirely for weeks and then slowly have begun a phased re-opening starting with more essential functions and building out. As a result of these closures, the court docket is extremely overcrowded. Trials that were scheduled in the spring have been pushed out and an influx of new cases has overwhelmed the process. Many people are waiting months if not longer for court dates and action on their cases. As a result, some have turned to alternative options for handling their family law case. Mediation and collaborative law can provide helpful alternatives to the litigation process. Though there are differences between mediation and collaborative divorce, both involve meetings with the parties and professionals involved in an attempt to reach an amicable resolution. Because these meetings occur outside of court, parties are not bound by the court’s schedule, and instead can often make progress sooner. Additionally, the flexibility of mediation and collaborative law allows parties to tailor the process and outcome to fit their schedule, their needs and their goals. These alternative dispute resolution options can be a great choice during COVID 19.

Custody
While the initial panic and concern regarding the impact of COVID on custody has dissipated, many issues still remain. As a reminder, most courts have insisted that parties continue to follow any current custody order, regardless of stay-at-home orders or other recommendations by state and local governments. That means that if you have a valid custody order, you should continue to follow that schedule. Issues may have arisen during this time which necessitate revisiting the current schedule, and filing a modification may accomplish your goals. Alternatively, parents may have decided to separate during this pandemic and as such, are at the very beginning of the custody process. If you have a custody order which isn’t working for your family or you need to get one in place, the sooner you contact an attorney, the better. Choosing the right strategy is critical. An attorney can advise you of the best plan and also make sure to address other matters like vacations, holidays, communication and exchanges.

Other issues that have arisen during this time include homeschooling, the school year/summer custody schedule and when to switch between these, and concerns about households having different expectations for social distancing and safety. On the other side of the spectrum are parents who have decided to separate during this pandemic. Establishing a custody schedule may be difficult but it is important to have something in place, at least on an interim basis, right off the bat. If you have a custody order which isn’t working for your family or need to get one in place, the sooner you contact an attorney the better. Getting off on the correct path is critical and an attorney can advise you of the best plan and also make sure you plan for other matters like vacations, holidays, communication and exchanges.

Income Changes
One of the biggest challenge family law clients are facing during the pandemic is a change in income, including job loss, fewer hours, or a reduction in salary. Earning less money may make it difficult, if not impossible, to meet child support or spousal support obligations. Under Pennsylvania law, child support can be modifiable based upon a material change in circumstances, such as a change in income. Filing for a support modification may allow you to see a reduction in your support obligation based upon any loss of income. Additionally, spousal support and alimony may also be modifiable in certain circumstances. Family law attorneys can help you understand how your support obligation might change based upon your new income which can help you decide if filing through the courts is worth it. Taking action promptly is critical to avoid arrears building up which can impact your credit scores and have a variety of enforcement consequences.

Divorce
In addition to all of the above issues, parties going through a divorce during the pandemic may face additional economic concerns. Many retirement and investment accounts have taken a hit as a result of market fluctuations. The value of small businesses has also been dramatically impacted. Parties that are preparing to divide assets may want to consider how to fairly accomplish equitable distribution in light of the market volatility. Some parties may elect to wait to make any decisions until the market stabilizes to ensure that any division is truly equitable. Debt may also have increased during this time due to job loss or a decrease in income Experienced family law attorneys can provide a variety of potential solutions to accomplish your goals fairly.