Divorce During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Divorce is often a stressful and emotional experience. Even between couples who mutually decided it was time to go their separate ways. Getting divorced or co-parenting during a global pandemic doesn’t make things any easier. National Public Radio addresses this in their May 6th article ‘Six Feet Of Separation: Stories Of Parenting And Divorce During COVID-19‘.

Virus Presents Unique Challenges

WBEZ’s Carrie Shepherd interviewed two couples for NPR to discuss the unique challenges couples face when divorcing and co-parenting through a pandemic. For Brian and Liz Urban things had been going about as well as one can expect in a divorce.

When the couple decided to separate, Brian moved out of their marital home. However, that was short lived. With the COVID-19 pandemic they decided to move back in together. They felt that with the risk of exposure to the virus it was more safe to continue cohabiting. Shepherd writes, ‘Liz … said it was helpful to have both parents there to help Oliver navigate the confusing and unsettling time the pandemic caused,’ and cites that the couple finalized their divorce in March and now live separately again. The couple was able to finalize their divorce online.

Shannon, however, reported that her divorce was not going as smoothly. ‘After back-and-forth discussions about who would leave the house, Shannon, whose divorce is still pending, said her husband agreed to move out. Then, financial instability from the pandemic forced them to continue to live together with their two sons. Her husband’s company was doing layoffs, and new job prospects are difficult when unemployment numbers continue to skyrocket.’ Shannon’s experience is one shared by many who are divorcing in these uncertain times.

Co-Parenting

Whether divorced or separated, co-parenting is challenging. The issues that created tension in your marriage are unlikely to go away just because you live apart. The pandemic is only making matters more complicated.

‘For separated or divorced parents, the coronavirus can create questions about joint custody agreements, such as whether it’s best to keep children isolated in one home or move them between homes,’ says Shepherd. Many states have made exceptions to their shelter-in-place orders as it relates to custody agreements. For example, in Texas the orders ‘specifically state that ‘traveling to exchange the children is not a violation of the orders‘.

Ideally, parents will discuss the risks and come to their own agreement. Unfortunately many parents do not see eye to eye on how best to protect their children during the pandemic. Judges warn parents that if they fail to uphold the custody agreement they end up with a ‘motion to enforce’. Remember, you always have a right to your court ordered visitation. If your former spouse is not keeping to the agreement, you should speak with your attorney.

Depending on your circumstances, you may have a right to temporarily withhold visitation. J. Alex Jacobson, a Chicago mediator, told Shepherd, “Let’s say, for example, somebody’s an ER doc and the other parent is extremely concerned about what protocols are being implemented to protect the kids,” depending on the circumstances, you may have a case. You should speak with an attorney specializing in family law about your concerns. They will be able to answer your questions and help ensure your children’s best interest is served.

Have Divorces Increased With COVID-19?

It is hard to tell. Right now many states are seeing a decrease in the number of divorce filings. This may be due to a number of factors. Divorce is expensive and with millions out of work or under employed. Couples may simply not be able to afford to divorce right now. Others may feel that it would only make an already stressful time worse and may choose to wait. Vincent Stark, a family law attorney in Chicago, told Shepherd that divorce during the COVID-19 pandemic is similar ‘to what usually happens at the first of the year — divorces spike because couples wait until after the holidays to file’.

For couples who were already struggling, quarantine may be the ‘final straw’. Even those who prefer to spend most of their time at home are feeling the effects of long term confinement. Many are also trying to balance working from home with the challenges of distance learning. Sadly, not everyone is coping well. ‘No one was prepared for this. People in difficult marriages tell me that they feel trapped, want an escape, struggle with the stress of uncertainty about the future, anxiously fear the disease, are climbing the walls with boredom, and feeling lonely,’ Ann Gold Buscho Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today. The continued shelter-in-place orders are unlikely to do struggling couples any favors. Lawyers expect that divorce rates will jump once the quarantine is over.

Divorce During COVID-19

Couples who choose to move forward with divorce during the coronavirus pandemic may find the process is particularly challenging. To follow shelter-in-place orders, lawyers and judges are using teleconferencing and Zoom. Anyone who has used these technologies knows that they aren’t always user friendly. “The judge couldn’t dial in and when he did dial in, he was on mute,” Liz Urban told Shepherd. They switched to a Zoom call and experienced further challenges. Finally, she walked down the hall to share her soon-to-be ex’s camera to finish the proceedings.

With judges and lawyers working from home in many instances, their availability may also be reduced. This can delay proceedings or stretch out the divorce process. Be prepared that your divorce may take longer than usual while shelter-in-place orders remain in effect.

Seek Legal Advice

Couples may try to save money by self-representing their divorce. While this is possible, it is not recommended, even for couples who are splitting on good terms. Divorce is a stressful, emotional, and complicated process. The pandemic has only made matters more difficult to navigate on your own. Hiring an experienced attorney will help you protect your assets and parental rights. They will also ensure that the custody agreement and other arrangements all serve the best interests of your children. The lawyers at Olmstead & Olmstead, P.C. are experts in criminal, personal injury, and family law. They will be happy to answer any questions you might have about getting a divorce during the pandemic.

Call Olmstead & Olmstead, P.C. at (703) 361-1555 for more information about divorce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Making Healthcare Decisions for Children of Divorce

When there is a divorce involving children, the parents often have vehement disagreements about various parenting issues. One of the most common areas in which parents may not see eye to eye is with the health care decisions that must be made. Before the divorce is finalized, they might be able to agree on whose health insurance policy the children will be under, but when a specific issue arises, they often have different ideas about how it should be addressed.

Sole vs. Joint Custody in Virginia

The first consideration when there is a disagreement about a health care decision on behalf of the child is which parent has custody. There are two different types of child custody; physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody addresses which parent the child lives with primarily, and how often the non-custodial parent is able to visit the child. Legal custody deals with the ability of parents to make major decisions that affect the child. Healthcare decisions would fall into the area of legal custody, because it would be in the “major decision” category.

When One of the Parents Has Sole Legal Custody

If one of the parents has sole legal custody, then they are able to make decisions about routine medical care (e.g., physicals, dental checkups, eye tests, etc.) without consulting the other parent. In addition, either parent can make a decision about emergency medical care while the child is with them. However, if this is the parent who does not have sole legal custody, he or she must inform the other parent about the medical treatment the child received as soon as it is reasonably possible.

When Parents have Joint Legal Custody

It is becoming increasingly common in Virginia and throughout the country for parents to share legal custody of their children. The default position of the family courts is that it is generally in the best interests of the children for both parents to be involved in their lives. So, even in situations where one parent has primary physical custody of the child, they often have joint legal custody; giving them equal decision-making authority over areas such as education, religious upbringing, extra-curricular activities, and health care. 

In some cases, one parent may be given final decision-making authority over certain areas, with other areas going to the other parent. For example, if religious upbringing and education are more important to the mother and the child is on the father’s health insurance policy, the mother may decide which religion the children will be brought up and which school they will go to, while the father may to have decision-making authority for medical treatment.

In many joint custody arrangements, however, the areas of decision-making are not as well-defined, and it is expected that the parents will consult each other and work cooperatively and in keeping with the child’s best interest. And while they might start out with this intention, specific situations may come up in which a major disagreement may arise.

When the Parents Can’t Agree on Medical Treatment

Disagreements over healthcare decisions can lead to a standoff between two parents with the equal decision-making authority, putting professionals who are just trying to do their jobs in the middle of a parenting dispute. For example, the child injures his arm playing football. The mother wants the child to have surgery, but the father wants to pursue other treatments. Both have consulted equally-competent medical professionals who support their point of view.

How does this situation get resolved? Most likely, in one of two ways; the parents either work together to reach a solution both of them can live with, or one of the parents (probably the mother in this case) petitions the court to obtain full legal custody so she can go forward with the surgery. When the court gets involved, the results are unpredictable, and they depend largely on the viewpoint of the judge presiding over the case and the strength of the arguments presented by both sides.

Involved in a Child Custody Dispute in Virginia? Contact an Experienced Family Law Attorney

Parents with joint legal custody should be committed to working together to decide important parenting matters (based on their children’s best interests). And before going back to court, they should exhaust all other avenues and try to work out any disputes on their own. That said, there are times when there is little choice but to petition the court for a modification of the current custody arrangement. When that situation arises, you need strong legal counsel in your corner advocating forcefully for your rights and interests, and for the best interests of your child.  To schedule an initial consultation with the seasoned family law attorneys at Olmstead & Olmstead, call us today at 703-361-1555. You may also message us through our web contact form or visit our Manassas, VA office in person at your convenience.