Statistics suggest that we may see an upsurge in divorce filings following coronavirus-related quarantines. The increased time couples spend together may expose infidelity or highlight inequalities in parenting responsibilities. Whatever the reason, if the foundation of your relationship with your spouse had cracks prior to quarantine, those weaknesses are likely to be tested and may prompt one or both of you to contemplate major life changes.
While such decisions always require care, there are added complications to consider when doing so during a pandemic and an economic downturn. As we learned first-hand during the 2008-09 recession, divorce during a down economy requires different strategies and approaches than divorce in a thriving economy.
Assessing the Economic Impact
The recession, bear market and increased unemployment add challenges and stress to every situation. Many people believe there is an advantage to divorcing in a down economy as incomes decrease resulting in lower support awards (or higher depending on which side of the case you are on) and a weaker stock market means less to divvy up as part of the property distribution process. Those already separated or divorced may seek to take advantage of the situation by modifying their child support or alimony obligations.
The courts are starting to reopen in North Carolina and the courtrooms, virtual or in-person, will be crowded. The vast majority of hearings that were supposed to occur between March 17 and June 1 have been rescheduled and added to the existing court calendars for this summer and fall. There is no doubt that there will be a backlog of cases waiting for the judges when courtrooms fully re-open. While it may be a while before you can get in front of a judge, that delay should not prevent you from getting a better understanding of the divorce process and what lies ahead.
Understanding the Process
First, learn about the process. You do not have to wait until life returns to normal to reach out to an attorney to learn about the process. Understanding the timelines, process and procedure will empower you and help inform your decisions about how and when to proceed, if at all. North Carolina law requires that parties live separate and apart for a year prior to getting a divorce, but you do not need to wait that long to resolve matters. Custody and financial agreements are often negotiated and resolved prior to the parties actually separating.
Gather Financial Information
Next, gather financial documents. Once people separate, it often becomes more difficult to obtain financial documents from your soon-to-be former spouse. If you cannot obtain statements for your accounts, make a note of which bank or financial institution holds the accounts. Get copies of your tax returns going back at least two (2) years. While your 2018 and 2019 tax returns may be far different from your income in 2020, older returns are helpful in identifying assets and illustrating the lifestyle that existed during the marriage. Credit card statements are also important and useful.
Compile an Annual Budget
Put together a budget or a list of expenses. There is value in knowing how much your mortgage or rent payment is each month. Write down your utility costs for the previous year. Some expenses surge in the summer, others in the winter. It is important to look at a full 12-month period to determine the average. How much did you spend on vacations, haircuts or other personal expenses? While you may not have those expenses this month or next, they will return. Most people are spending more on groceries now, but less on restaurants. Understanding how much you need going forward is critical in support cases.
Prepare for the Emotional Toll
Lastly, it's important to mentally prepare yourself. Divorce is an emotional process, even if you are the one who wants the divorce. It is difficult for clients to separate their emotions from decisions that have to be made during the divorce process. The more comfortable you are with your mental health and emotional well-being, the easier this process will be. In addition to retaining a lawyer, those who are undergoing the divorce process very often find that a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist can be an invaluable resource. Your conversations with such professionals are privileged, so do not hesitate to reach out for mental health advice. It will guide you in important ways both during the divorce process and after.
If there is an unseen benefit to this pandemic, it is that many of us have more time. What we do with that time can make all the difference.