How Might COVID-19 Affect Your Family Law Case?

The Novel Coronavirus crisis has changed our daily lives and continues to reshape the world regularly. In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, Conn Kavanaugh is here to answer your questions about how COVID-19 might affect your family law case.

First, Alimony and Child Support may be modified due to changes in incomes, financial hardship, job loss, or increased financial needs. Depending on your circumstances, you might be able to reduce the support you pay or increase the support you receive.

Likewise, the Governor’s directive that people should stay home, the closure of businesses and services, and concerns about individual health and the health of your children, has many parents rightfully concerned about how and if parenting time should take place.

Our family law attorneys have answered some of the most common questions about these issues below.

Common Questions

Q: I pay Alimony, can I reduce or suspend my Alimony payments?

Alimony can be changed for a number of reasons, most importantly, because of a “material change in circumstances.” This means that Alimony can be adjusted if something changes regarding your ability to pay, or the recipient’s need for support. The dramatic and sweeping effects of the COVID-19 crisis (including massive unemployment) will certainly be a material change in the circumstances of many who pay and receive support.

Q: What are some changes of circumstances that may warrant modifying Alimony?

If you have lost your job, suffered a reduction in pay, taken a furlough or temporary layoff, suddenly have additional expenses, or if your business is suffering significant downturn due to COVID-19, it may be appropriate to ask the Court to reduce what you pay in Alimony or to suspend your alimony payments temporarily.

Q: I receive Alimony, as the recipient can I ask for Alimony to be Increased?

Either party can file for a modification of Alimony. Similarly, those same changes in circumstances cited above may occur to the Recipient of Alimony, necessitating an increase of their existing support Order.

Q: Can I reduce or ask for an increase of my Child Support Payment?

Child Support is established by the Child Support Guidelines, which calculate the appropriate amount of support based on income, parenting time, and the number and ages of the children covered by the order. Child support is always modifiable when the parties’ incomes change, so a drop in your income due to COVID-19 (or otherwise) may be cause to seek a new child support order. However, if the recipient’s income is reduced as well, the calculation may not necessarily work in your favor. You may use this link to access a Child Support Guidelines Worksheet to calculate an up to date Order (accuracy will depend on your knowledge of both the Recipients and the Obligor’s current income).

Q: What about Orders concerning parenting time – how are they affected by COVID-19?

A number of issues related to COVID-19 could affect how practical existing visitation orders are carried out. If parenting time occurs in a public place, or if the exchanges are made in public, those places may be closed. Some parents may not feel comfortable leaving the house or having their children leave the house, in light of the recommendation that people practice social distancing. Routines may be disrupted because children are out of school. Some parents may have concerns about their co-parent’s potential exposure to the virus.

All of these are valid concerns that you may have about whether your parenting time should proceed as usual. However, to the extent that it is possible, parents should attempt to resume regular parenting time while making every effort to reduce the possible spread of the virus. The Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court issued an Open Letter stating that Court Ordered parenting time is not suspended and that Court Orders must be followed. However, he does note that self-quarantined parents should cooperate to allow parenting time by video conference.

If there are serious concerns about whether or how parenting time is taking place (or should take place), you may want to take action to modify or enforce the existing parenting time orders.

Q: How soon could I get relief in Court?

As with so much else, the Courts are responding to COVID-19 by reducing operations. The Probate and Family Court has ceased all hearings that are not considered “emergencies” pursuant to Probate and Family Court Standing Order 2-20, until May 1st, 2020. The Court plans to resume normal operations on that date, but this plan can, of course, change. Even if there are no additional delays, matters that must be rescheduled, and new matters filed between now and May 1st, will create a backlog and likely slow down proceedings thereafter. Accordingly, relief from the Probate and Family Court may come more slowly than usual in these times.

However, if you are experiencing emergency circumstances, the Court may hear your matter remotely (by telephone, videoconference, or otherwise).

Q: What constitutes an Emergency?

Pursuant to Standing Order 2-20, matters related to physical safety, including restraining orders, orders to vacate, and protective orders under G. L. c. 209A and G. L. c. 208, § 34B, will continue to be heard by telephone or videoconference. Likewise, certain other types of cases are deemed emergency matters under the Standing Order. They will continue to be heard before May 1st, 2020, including Do Not Resuscitate requests, temporary guardianship appointments, health care proxy actions, and others.

For remaining matters, such as support modification actions, or parenting time orders, the Court will consider requests for emergency hearings on a “case-by-case” basis. Much will depend on the determination of Court staff about your emergency circumstances, but if you have lost your job, are having trouble paying your bills, or have serious health concerns regarding parenting time exchanges, you may have an emergency matter that the Court can address before regular scheduling can resume.

Q: Why file now, if the Courts are only hearing Emergencies until May 1st, 2020?

Notwithstanding delays caused by Probate and Family Court Standing Order 2-20, and in fact, because of these delays, you should file as soon as possible for any relief you seek from the Court. Even if you believe your case would not be considered an “emergency” by the Court, the sooner you file, the sooner you will be heard. As a backlog of cases piles up during the Novel Coronavirus crisis and response, the already strained court system will likely schedule matters in the order that they were filed. The longer you wait to file an action, the more backlog will likely exist in front of your case.

Q: What if I have additional questions?

Every family is unique, and the specific facts of each case can change everything about the outcome. If you have more questions about the implications of COVID-19 on your financial obligations, the support you receive, or your parenting time with your child, we urge you to reach out to a family law attorney.

Written by:

Conn Kavanaugh

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