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.
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.