Whether you were just contemplating divorce prior to the coronavirus outbreak, or already in the midst of one, you may be concerned that COVID-19 will bring your plans, or your case, to a screeching halt. This does not have to be the case. While there are many things we cannot control during these stressful times, it is still helpful to remember that there are proactive things you can do now to keep your family law or divorce case moving forward.
1. Gathering and Organizing Financial Information
If you are planning to separate in the future but are currently stuck at home, use this time as an opportunity to gather and organize your financial documents. Documents that would be helpful to get together include the following: appraisals of any real estate you own; mortgage statements or debts associated with any real estate you own; your last five years of tax returns; your most recent W-2 and other income reporting documents; your paystubs from the beginning of the year through the present; documentation regarding insurance policies such as health insurance policies, life insurance policies, and vehicle insurance policies, including the cost of coverage; bank statements, credit card statements, and any other financial account statements for the last twelve months; retirement statements for the last twelve months; and statements of any other loans or debts taken out during the marriage for the last twelve months.
The beginning part of any divorce case involving financial issues is often information-gathering. This process can often be overwhelming and stressful, so if you have an opportunity to get a jump start on it now, you will be in good shape. Many of the documents can be requested or obtained and received online. It may be helpful to set up an electronic file and organize the documents as you go. If you are planning to separate it may also be helpful to calculate your monthly expenses and how those expenses may change once separation occurs. Taking the time to write down a thorough and detailed itemization of your bills and expenses can alleviate some of the uncertainty that comes with separation and can help you be better prepared financially. A link to a sample Financial Affidavit that can help you organize this information can be found at https://www.nccourts.gov/documents/local-rules-and-forms/wake-dom-10-financial-affidavit-of-plaintiff-defendant-rev-913.
2. Organizing Personal Property
If you are finding yourself at home with extra time on your hands, it may be helpful to go through the closets, attic, garage, and anywhere else you may have accumulated unwanted or unneeded items. Start getting rid of the items you no longer want, and use this opportunity to organize the personal items that are important to you such as family photos, holiday decorations, and keepsakes and mementos. Make electronic copies of family photos and videos that will need to be duplicated. Make sure you locate important documents like birth certificates, social security cards, passports, wills, etc. and that you have the originals or copies of the ones you will need at the time of separation. These items are easily overlooked during the initial part of the divorce, especially if they are gathering dust in a drawer or in the attic, but for many people these items are priceless. Additionally, while many people do not think about things like birth certificates and social security cards, leaving these items in the possession of your soon to be ex-spouse may cause difficulties down the road, even if you ultimately do get them back. An essential document locator checklist can be found at https://www.aplaceformom.com/planning-and-advice/articles/essential-documents. You may also want to start working on a list of the household furnishings and personal property that you want to keep in the event of a divorce.
3. Taking the First Step
While in-person meetings may be a no-no at this time, most law firms are still operating remotely and can accommodate phone calls and electronic contact. If you are ready to get more information about what your rights and responsibilities may be in the event of a separation or divorce, it may be helpful to schedule a phone consultation with an attorney. While everything else in the world seems to be standing still, taking the time to get this information may be ideal, especially if you are out of work or working from home yourself. An attorney can give you insight into your options for separation and divorce and prepare your expectations for this process once you are ready to move forward. If you and your spouse are relatively in agreement on the terms of your divorce, an attorney can also go ahead and draft the settlement documents outlining your agreement for you and your spouse to start reviewing. As explained below, a remote mediation session may even be possible. For information regarding current protocols, you can check out https://www.nccourts.gov/commissions/dispute-resolution-commission.
4. Situations Requiring Immediate Action
If you are a victim of domestic violence, you may need services now. Attorneys and the courts are still open and available to assist in these situations. Additionally, if you are in a situation where your child is at risk of abuse or being moved without your consent, these issues may constitute an emergency which needs to be addressed now. Attorneys and the courts remain open and available to assist clients dealing with cases involving child abuse and neglect or situations which may constitute parental kidnapping. Shelter in place orders, while necessary, are often followed by an increase in domestic violence and child abuse, especially in times where people are facing job losses and financial stress. If you or your child is in danger, please do not hesitate to seek help. Resources and information can be found at https://www.interactofwake.org.
In addition to emergency situations, in this unprecedented time, arguments are erupting everywhere about custody and unfortunately there is no one-size fits all answer. Do you continue exchanges as normal even if your child has a serious medical condition? How to you handle a situation where your ex-spouse is a health care worker and still has child care available, but you do not want your child to attend daycare right now? Does the school situation impact your visitation schedule? If your kids live in another state, should they still come for spring break? If you are uncertain about what your rights and options are, you may need to seek legal advice from a qualified professional.
5. Mediation and Arbitration
So what if your case was already well under way when COVID-19 hit? Is all hope lost? The answer is no. Family law attorneys are still able to conduct mediations remotely via electronic platforms if all parties consent to this. This means you can work with a mediator to resolve the case and get final settlement documents in place, even if you can’t all be in the same place or the same room. While court closures and delays for the majority of divorce related matters will be in effect through the end of May, alternatives exist even for cases that are unlikely to settle. (The information reflecting the operation of the court system can be found here: https://assets.noviams.com/novi-file-uploads/ptaa/2_April_2020_-_7A-39_b__2__Order__Final__21401_.pdf.). Arbitration is where another individual, typically someone with extensive family law and mediation experience, hears the case and renders a decision. This is not exactly like a court proceeding, so you need to discuss this option and how it would impact your case with your lawyer. For cases that need decisions, scheduling remote arbitration soon, or even getting an arbitration scheduled within the next six months to avoid further delay and the backlog of the courts, may provide all parties with some certainty and relief.