The COVID-19 pandemic has left more than 30 million people unemployed. The financial hardship is even tougher if you are going through a divorce during this tumultuous time.
There are millions of divorced dads who can no longer afford their child support or alimony payments because the pandemic has wrecked their finances. Perhaps even more concerning is the number of fathers losing access to their children because of custody exchange complications during stay-at-home orders.
On April 30, Cordell & Cordell hosted a Virtual Town featuring a panel of divorce lawyers from across the United States who answered questions from viewers about the divorce issues they are facing during this unprecedented time.
How to file for divorce during COVID-19
The Coronavirus has closed many family courts, but that does not mean there is no way to move forward with divorce.
Although you might not be able to appear in court for in-person hearings and court appearances, you should still be able to file.
“In Florida, the courts are closed to the general public, meaning that you can’t walk into the court and file an action, unless it’s an emergency,” Cordell & Cordell Florida Litigation Manager Marc Cohen said. “But they are open, in terms of us [attorneys] being able to file actions, being able to get hearings before judges.”
How to modify support orders during COVID-19
One of the biggest problems divorced fathers are encountering is that their income has been dramatically reduced because of the pandemic and they can no longer afford child support or alimony.
In those instances, it is important to file for a modification as soon as possible.
“Whether you are looking to modify support or maintenance, due to a job loss or you’re just starting out on a divorce, it becomes especially important to modify if you’re now collecting unemployment and you have had a significant decrease in your income,” Cordell & Cordell Regional Partner Bridget Landry said.
“In Minnesota, the support modification, which includes spousal maintenance or alimony, and child support, are retroactive from the date they are served. So, if already have a decrease in income, it’s very important to get that motion served, as soon as possible, because even though your court date may not be a month, or two, or three from now, the retroactivity will go back to the date of service.”
The courts are unlikely to cut you any slack if you fall behind on payments, even if it was because of the pandemic.
“When you say to judges ‘Well, it was Coronavirus. I didn’t do anything,’ it’s not going to be an excuse,” Cordell & Cordell CEO/Managing Partner Scott Trout said. “We want to give the judge the maximum latitude across the country, where ever you may be, to make that order retroactive and apply toward payments that you couldn’t make.”
Extramarital affairs during COVID-19
The Virtual Town Hall also briefly touched on the topic of infidelity during the pandemic and how that can impact the divorce process. An affair can potentially affect how much alimony is owed. At a time when the economy is reeling, and employment is tough to come by, that determination can end up being very costly.
“New York, like many states, is considered no fault, which means you don’t have to show that somebody had an affair, in order to get a divorce,” Cordell & Cordell New York Litigation Manager Asa Neff said. “But it is certainly taken into consideration for a lot of purposes. It can have a financial impact, certainly if you are spending money on an extramarital affair. If that’s found out, a judge can order that that money come back in and have to be redistributed and repaid to the marital estate.
“If there are issues of custody in a case, a judge is going to look at your behavior and make a decision about whether or not that should impact the time you’re going to have with your children.”
Child custody during COVID-19
The top issue divorcing men are struggling with during the Coronavirus might be sorting through child custody exchanges while still following quarantine and stay-at-home orders.
Some dads fear traveling with their children for custody drop-offs will risk exposing them to the virus. Other fathers are missing out on parenting time because their ex is withholding custody and using the virus as an excuse.
During the Virtual Town Hall, Cordell & Cordell Regional Partner Erica Gittings explained steps to take when debating whether to withhold your child and refuse to give up custody during the pandemic. She suggested providing written communication expressing your worries to the other parent and documenting your actions during this time.
“Document what you are doing to make sure that you are following all of the Governor’s orders for your state and making sure you’re following all of the social distancing requirements,” Ms. Gittings said. “Also make sure to document any evidence you may have that your co-parent is not following the isolation orders or the social distancing orders.”
She also emphasized the importance of consulting with your divorce attorney before proceeding with any actions outside the guidelines laid out in your custody order.
“In the state of Wisconsin, we have the statute, a motion to enforce placement, and if you withhold the children and the court finds out that it was intentional and unreasonable, you could be subjected to paying the other side’s attorney’s fees,” she said. “So it is important to put all of your ducks in a row, in order to show the courts your concerns, which are real and are expressed appropriately, and that you’re taking the right steps.”
Proactiveness is key
Repeatedly, the attorneys stressed the importance of being proactive on family law matters during this time.
Always document any interactions you might have with your ex regarding co-parenting. Pay what you can in child support and alimony. Stay up to date on the guidelines your state and local governments provide – especially as it relates to custody exchanges and modification issues. And contact your divorce attorney when you are uncertain how to proceed.