All manner of industries and service providers have had to drastically change the way they operate in the midst of the massive changes in our lives this pandemic has created. The coronavirus pandemic is simply something we’ve never seen before in family law and will likely have a significant impact on various issues family law litigants deal with. In this article we’ll spell out what we know, what we don’t know, and what we can foresee as of April 8, 2020.
WHAT WE KNOW: COURT RESTRICTIONS
In family law, parties to a legal action can always reach an agreement to resolve disputes. In the event the parties can’t reach an agreement, the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court serves as the decider.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Massachusetts court system has issued a number of orders that drastically limits the ability of family law litigants to be heard on motions, to have pre-trial conferences and to take part in trials. Basically, the Probate and Family Court is only hearing emergency matters and drastically limiting the ability of the public to even enter the court buildings.
What does that mean for your case? If you have a pending case, it likely means delays. Most of the hearings that were scheduled prior to May 4, 2020 are being rescheduled and we anticipate more rescheduling to come.
If your case is concluded and you believe the opposing party may have violated the prior judgment or if you want to modify the prior judgment, speak to an attorney – especially if it’s an emergency.
WHAT WE KNOW: CUSTODY AND PARENTING TIME
The #1 question we’ve gotten from our clients relating to coronavirus is: “What happens with parenting time?” “Should transitions between parents occur?” “Does parenting time risk exposing the child(ren) to coronavirus?”
Every case is different and every parenting plan is different. What we know is that the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court has made it clear that parenting plans are still in effect and need to be followed. The Chief Justice even implied that parenting time during these difficult days is more important than ever.
So we know that neither parent cannot decide on their own to withhold parenting time or not to exchange the children for parenting time because of coronavirus without any extenuating circumstances. But, again, every case is different, so if you feel that there are facts and circumstances affecting your family that require additional precautions or restrictions during this pandemic, speak to a family law attorney right away.
WHAT WE KNOW: LOOK TO OTHER DISPUTE RESOLUTION OPTIONS
One thing that’s happening across the board is delays. We’ve had dozens of hearings for our clients continued because of restrictions on in-person hearings. If your case has a non-emergency dispute that cannot be resolved by means of negotiations, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get a hearing date before this pandemic comes to an end. That means you should look to alternative dispute resolution options.
What do I mean by “alternative dispute resolution” – basically any other means besides litigating in court. This can include mediation (where a third party assists in reaching an agreement), conciliation (where a third party provides their opinion of an issue in a case and helps push that through to an agreement) or arbitration (where a third party actually makes a binding decision). If you have an issue in dispute that needs resolution, but that issue doesn’t necessarily constitute an “emergency” to get into court now, consult with an attorney about these options for alternative dispute resolution.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: WHERE THE ECONOMY WILL GO
It goes without saying that the economy has taken a massive hit due to the coronavirus outbreak. The stock market appears to have gone from bull to bear, retirement account balances are dropping, applications for unemployment benefits have skyrocketed. We hope, like everyone else, that the economy recovers after this pandemic comes to an end, but we really don’t know.
As it relates to family law, it may make sense to wait to divide assets at a later date when the market has (hopefully) improved. There may be delays in dividing assets that cannot be controlled. It’s also entirely possible that the housing market may be impacted and the sale of real estate might not fetch as high a sale price as previously anticipated.
There’s a lot of information out there; some of which isn’t entirely accurate. We’ve heard rumors aplenty about what the government and the IRS will or will not do. We’ve seen some of those rumors play out (such as extending the date to file tax returns). The point is that you should consult with a professional who can separate the fact from the fiction on what kind of aid and relief the government is offering.
WHAT WE DO KNOW: FILE NOW AND SAVE TIME.
What we’re being told by the courts is that once restrictions are lifted, matters will be heard in the order in which they were filed. That means if you want to seek relief from the court, you should file your complaint, motion, contempt – whatever the case may be – now. That way, you’ll save some time when the court is processing those requests.
This is especially important if you are seeking a modification of a support obligation. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of layoffs and there may be more to come. Income is a major factor in both child support and alimony. If you lose your job and there’s an active support obligation, contact a family law attorney right away. Even if you can’t get into court on a motion, you should file right away. In support modification actions you may be entitled to retroactive relief. But you are only entitled to that retroactive relief if you file.
WHAT WE CAN FORESEE: DELAYS.
Think of a wave hitting a beach. Water recedes and then what happens next? A massive wave comes through. What we’re seeing right now is unprecedented. The Probate and Family Court is rescheduling hearings across the board and rightfully so, this virus is nothing to be trifled with. But when this crisis comes to an end (and it will!) there will be weeks worth of disputes needing to be resolved. We anticipate that a significant amount of litigants will be seeking relief through the court system once this pandemic subsides. When that happens, hearing lists will likely get filled up and hearing dates will be pushed out further and further.
The point on this is that if you have a family law issue that needs resolution, speak with an attorney as soon as possible. That way, when restrictions are loosened up, the pieces are hopefully in place on an action so that you can get the relief you need.
WHAT WE CAN FORESEE: NEW ISSUES
All of us are in uncharted waters with the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, I had to address an issue in a case involving an “exposure vector.” Terms like “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” are now part of our daily vocabulary. There are going to be some long-term ramifications that result from the coronavirus pandemic. No one knows what all of those ramifications will be across the board or, more importantly, what those ramifications mean for your family.
The good news is that the attorneys at HJL Family Law Group have dealt with sea changes before. Whether it’s the overhaul of alimony that took place in 2012 or changes to child support or the re-defining of the standard of value for business valuations in a divorce, we’ve been nimble and adaptive. That’s what you can expect: effective, dynamic advocacy and advice.