Handling Your Divorce (and What Comes After) In the Age of COVID-19
Every American family has been impacted in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has already changed the very nature of who we are as a society and how we interact with each other in our day-to-day lives.
“Social distancing” used to refer to something you did to end a bad relationship and was often accompanied by the phrase “it’s not you, it’s me” or vague promises to remain friends. Now, it is a public safety guideline, meant to curb the spread of a deadly virus.
“Shelter in place” was once something you did over a long weekend, tub of popcorn in lap, when Netflix released the latest season of your favorite series. Now, it is compulsory in many communities and allows for only limited exceptions for whoever is determined to be an essential worker. Before you ask — yes, I believe divorce lawyers are quite essential.
For someone contemplating a divorce during these difficult times, the question naturally comes up as to whether it is even possible to file for a divorce. If someone is already in the midst of a pending divorce, can they proceed with their case and, if so, what do they need to know about how the process will work? How can they best prepare their case? How will the costs of their case be impacted by current events? This article will answer those questions and provide you with basic tips for handling your divorce from beginning to end in the age of COVID-19.
Should I Hire an Attorney to Help Me with my Divorce?
The answer is an unqualified yes! You already knew the answer to this question and not just because this article is being written by a divorce lawyer. The first step in your family law case should be to select a qualified attorney to assist you with the process. While it is not a requirement that you hire an attorney to represent you in court, the laws concerning divorce, property division, child custody, visitation, child support, alimony, and various related matters are quite complex. A mistake in any of those areas can have long-lasting repercussions and cost much more if you must remedy them at a later date than the cost to get it right the first time.
Also, it is important to remember that if you end up in front of a judge, it is going to be a very different experience than what is often portrayed on television. You will not see Judge Judy or some other celebrity judge who will give you the opportunity to simply tell them whatever story you like and what you want the judge to do. Instead, you will be in front of a judge who will hold you to the same standards of professional conduct as an attorney. That means you will be bound by the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Evidence.
Fortunately, many law firms have adapted their intake process to account for the current health crisis. A consultation with an attorney will most likely be done by phone or video conference, instead of via an in-person meeting. Most of the documentation for the client to complete and needed by the attorney to evaluate the case may be submitted electronically.
How do I Best Prepare my Case for my Attorney?
Many cases are lost simply because the attorney does not have all necessary and relevant information to best prepare, argue, and present your case. You can help your lawyer avoid these obstacles and, in the process, save money — a heck of a lot of money — on your bill at the same time by gathering as much necessary documentation as you can in advance of your first meeting. This will consist of any documents concerning your income and your spouse’s income, including at least six recent pay stubs and complete tax returns for the past five (5) years.
In addition, your lawyer will need to understand your monthly finances. You should supply documentation reflecting your monthly bills and expenses, in particular those expenses relating to your children. For example, how much does daycare cost each month and what is that cost broken down per child? How much are the extracurricular fees or private lessons? If the family has private insurance, how much does it cost to insure the family and, of that cost, how much is it to insure the children?
Your attorney will also want any documentation you have regarding your investment and retirement accounts, including those of your spouse, if you have access to them. Your attorney will need to know about any secured and unsecured debts you and your spouse hold, individually or jointly, and documentation to support the amounts of those debts. There may be other documentation you need to provide to your attorney, including bank statements, property appraisals, if available, and a listing of your personal property of any value. Remember that most financial institutions provide online access for their account holders and that statements are usually available online.
Hey, wait a minute! I hired an attorney to do this, so why am I doing all the work? Good question. The answer is because the extent to which you can provide this documentation to your attorney will assist your attorney in organizing your case and save you a considerable sum of money, too, because your attorney will not have to subpoena that information from your spouse or third party.
Once my Case is Filed, What Happens Next? How do I Save Money on my Bill?
So far, not much has changed from the process as it was before the COVID 19 pandemic. Your decision to retain an attorney and the manner in which you can prepare your case for your attorney remains the same. While your conversations with your attorney will likely be over the phone or by video conference instead of face-to-face, the substance of those conversations will generally be the same now as they were before. The most noticeable change is the way your case will proceed after it has been filed.
Our entire society has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The courts are no exception. Many courts have either closed or significantly limited the accessibility to their judges. In-person hearings are now generally limited to cases on which some form of immediate or emergency relief is required. That said, in a divorce action, there are many instances where such immediate or emergency relief is necessary, especially in a situation where domestic violence has occurred or if a spouse is in legitimate fear that it may occur if the other spouse is not removed from the home. In such cases, the courts are generally available in much the same manner as before the pandemic.
In situations not involving an emergency or the need for immediate relief, it is likely the process will take a bit longer to complete. While the various courts have been adapting to meet the current circumstances, there are no universal guidelines in place. Each court, and, more specifically, each judge has adopted their own rules for handling the cases to which they have been assigned. Some are allowing for telephone and/or virtual hearings to address certain matters. Others are asking the attorneys to submit their particular disputes on various issues in writing and foregoing any oral argument or discussion with the court. That said, for those matters requiring more time to resolve, especially cases in which a trial is necessary, it is likely that there will be a significant delay in getting the matter heard and resolved.
Given these circumstances, your attorney may suggest that you strongly consider mediation or arbitration to resolve your case instead of waiting for the judge assigned to your case to become available. While mediation or arbitration is already a normal part of the process in many divorce cases, especially in cases in which children are involved, it is not always used to address all issues in the case. Mediation or arbitration can be conducted by phone or video conference, which means the parties, the attorneys, and the mediator are not going to be in the same room. The mediator or arbitrator in family law cases is usually an attorney with a family law background. Therefore, he or she is capable of addressing all of the issues in a particular case with an informed, practiced approach.
While it is important to work with your attorney to prepare for your mediation or arbitration session, the discussions between the parties, attorneys, and mediator or arbitrator are usually more candid and the rules of evidence more relaxed to allow for frank and meaningful discussion between the parties. Furthermore, it is almost always significantly less expensive to prepare for and complete a mediation session than to accomplish the same goals in court.
Beyond the court process, there are other ways to save money during this nationwide pandemic. As many families have already learned, especially when it comes to the cost of caring for their children during the week, day-care options have become more limited. When working from home, parents can benefit from sharing in the childcare responsibilities of their children. The traditional notions of parental responsibility and the contents of a parenting plan — if one is in place already — may need to be adapted to meet these changing times. Again, your attorney can work with you and your spouse and their attorney to help you come up with a plan that makes sense for your particular circumstances.
My Divorce is Over! Now What?
Congratulations — you have made it to the end of your divorce case. Well done! But what if, after a little time goes by, you start to wonder if you made a good deal to settle your case or, if it had gone to trial, you feel the judge was too harsh and you lost your case? What can be done? As it relates to the division of your property and debt, the answer (with very few exceptions) is “not much.” The courts do not want to constantly revisit issues of this sort, so most of the time a final judgment means just that — final!
However, in cases involving children, the rules are much more lenient. There is no such thing as a “final” custody or visitation order. While there may be certain timing restrictions pertaining to when and/or how often such a request may be filed, the ability of a parent to ask the court to modify a parenting schedule, the amount of child support or other monetary payments made on behalf of the children, and other aspects of the judgment relating to the children’s care is always available.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been, and will likely continue to be, long-lasting impacts with regard to parents’ work schedules and the amount of income they bring home monthly. As our nation moves back to some semblance of normal, the time parents spend at home or work and the amount of money they make from their employment may change, which may render it appropriate to modify a parenting plan implemented during the current nationwide pandemic. As awards for child support or alimony may not be made retroactive, it is important to seek prompt legal advice from a qualified family law attorney in the event you wish to consider these options.
Likewise, if it is not a modification of a custody order or parenting plan you want, but rather a question of enforcement, it is possible to file a variety of motions to address those issues as well, including a motion asking the judge in your case to find the other party to be in contempt of court and to implement appropriate remedies to correct that behavior and fix the problem. A skilled family law attorney can also assist you in these matters.
Reach Out to Our Metro Atlanta Divorce Attorneys
If you need an experienced Georgia divorce attorney to act as a strong legal advocate on your behalf, reach out and contact Stearns-Montgomery & Proctor to request a case consultation today. We are available Monday through Friday, and have availability to consult off hours and weekends for busy professionals.