In the time of coronavirus, our new reality is being isolated in our homes together. Being stuck inside is hard enough for couples that are happily married or cohabiting. For those in the throes of a divorce, a months-long quarantine might be nothing short of a nightmare.
Many lawyers started hearing from anxious clients immediately after schools shut down and large events were banned. Clients are going insane. Many people are stressed out and panicked and emotionally traumatized as it is. And then you have this added layer of stress.
But it’s not just that spouses—or ex-spouses—are stuck together for the foreseeable future. In states across the country, the courts have effectively been closed aside from essential functions or emergency issues such as domestic violence.
Embittered couples won’t find resolution in courts right now. The global pandemic can’t keep folks from filing for divorce, especially after months of being sequestered. However, obtaining any relief may be challenging as court systems are shuttered and hearings are few and far between.
The quarantine is a challenge for separated or divorced parents:
How do you honor custody agreements in the midst of a statewide lockdown? We have recommended that people follow CDC guidelines if they do stick to their usual parenting arrangements. Some parents that have opted not to see their children for safety reasons have scheduled “parenting time” via FaceTime or Zoom. Arguments have arisen and there are limited means to address these issues.
No one can imagine putting a child on an airplane at this time. And for those who must drive to exchange children during a weekly time-sharing schedule, they risk bringing infection from one home to another. Embittered co-parents may be taking advantage of the situation to prevent exchanges, but what is the risk of continuing exchanges from one family to another?
For those facing separation under abusive circumstances, the problems are compounded by social distancing issues. It’s not a situation where you can even go run to someone’s home for shelter.
Many couples have quipped that their marriages might not survive a quarantine, but for some people, mandatory self-isolation with a spouse or ex could be downright dangerous. During the lockdown period the National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen an uptick in callers. Victims of abuse and domestic violence are especially vulnerable under a state-sanctioned lockdown, which can leave them trapped at home with their abusers and isolated from friends and family. Some people experiencing physical abuse might not seek out medical help if it means risking exposure to coronavirus—assuming they can even get access to care at hospitals overtaxed by COVID-19 patients.
In a dysfunctional relationship, a lot of times there is an element of domestic violence. Many of the call’s attorneys are getting are from people looking to hire them have been domestic violence-related. States such as Florida have strict protections for domestic violence, which means restraining orders are still considered essential services. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the courts can order abusers to move out of their home.
Still, for victims of abuse who lack the access or means to hire a lawyer, a quarantine chips away at their usual escapes. Domestic violence shelters, which are considered essential services, are overwhelmed as they struggle to keep up with state regulations and social distancing measures. Advocacy groups are using texts and live chats to communicate with victims who are stuck at home.
On and off social media, people have wondered if we’ll emerge from quarantine with a divorce boom or a baby boom—or both. Many attorneys believe the rate of divorce filings will rise, and not just as a direct result of being homebound for months on end. Financial stressors and addiction issues are often fodder for divorce.
Many clients have said they may not be able to keep up with child support payments. Many people mulling a separation lack the funds to actually move out of the house or pay for a divorce.
Some couples may turn to mediation, which is a cheaper alternative to going to court. Mediation is also an appealing alternative at the moment because it can be conducted virtually, which gives couples an opportunity to keep moving forward despite not having access to the courts. For couples who have the good fortune of not being quarantined together, online mediation can sometimes be beneficial.
We believe we are going to see thousands of cases backlogged when this is all over, and the court system is going to be inundated. One method being considered is to turn to mediators to assist in resolving disputes. Some couples may be starved for mediation by the end of an imposed quarantine.
It is no doubt going to be a new world. Those of us who are using Zoom and other means of video conferencing are going to learn new skills and will become familiar with emerging technologies in order to maintain divorce practices. It will be different – but will it be adequate?
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