Navigating the new social restrictions and life changes during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for everyone. But for families dealing with co-parenting issues, pending divorces and other family law-related situations, the challenges can be particularly complicated. The manner in which various courts – including in my home state of Texas – are handling these unprecedented family law questions is evolving day to day.
While every family law case is unique, below are a few of the most frequently asked pandemic-related family law questions clients are asking.
#1 – Does a Lockdown or Stay-At-Home Order Affect My Custody/Possession Schedule?
Generally, no. Most courts, including the Supreme Court of Texas have issued specific orders that lockdown/stay at home orders do not change possession schedules and both parents should continue to operate under the same custody/possession schedule contained in their court order or by agreement. However, parents are reminded to use common sense and exercise extreme caution if any family member has been exposed to or feels symptoms related to coronavirus. The health, safety and welfare of parents, children and other family members is of utmost priority.
#2 – What If the Other Parent Is in Another State? Can I Still Exercise Time With the Kids?
Changing custody/possession across state lines is always more difficult especially now with travel related restrictions in place and some states preventing the entry of citizens from other states where the pandemic outbreak is high. Again, generally most courts state that the possession schedules should not change in light of COVID-19 related restrictions. However, if your child usually travels by plane to see the other parent, exercise caution and drive to exchange custody, if possible. Alternatively, you can agree to give the out of state parent make up time with the child after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. If you and the other parent have not been using technology such as Facetime or Zoom, try to allow your child to call the other parent frequently using video technology so the child can “see” both parents as often as possible. Also, we are all stuck at home and sometimes need a break. If your parenting situation allows, you can offer the parent not in possession daily Facetime/Zoom interaction with the child to help with homework and generally keeping children entertained while everyone adjusts to the new stay at home orders.
#3 – Can I Still File for Divorce Right Now?
Yes. Most filing is done electronic and most courts continue to accept new divorce or custody actions. If you need to start a divorce, be aware that no trials are occurring so if you and your spouse cannot reach an agreement on all divorce related matters, then it is likely your divorce will not be final until well after COVID-19 related restrictions are lifted. However, if you know divorce is inevitable it may be wise to start the process now in an effort to reach an agreement or possibly even finalize your divorce in the near future.
#4 – What If My Divorce Is Pending? Can I Get A Divorce Right Now?
Maybe. If you and your spouse can reach an agreement, most courts are accepting agreed orders. It is possible to finalize your divorce if you can reach an agreement and submit an agreed order. In Texas, many courts are waiving the requirement to conduct a prove up on agreed final orders and now allow submissions by affidavit. Depending on your court/county you may or may not have to appear for a quick hearing on Zoom to finalize an agreed divorce.
#5 – Are Mediations Still Happening?
Yes. If you think you may be able to reach an agreement with your spouse, many mediators are conducting mediation via Zoom or other similar apps that allow private conference rooms (password protected) to maintain attorney-client confidentiality.
#6 – What If There is an Emergency With My Family?
Courts in Texas are still OPEN for emergency hearings related to domestic violence, child protective services related cases. Depending on the facts and circumstances you may be able to obtain emergency relief within from the Courts. However, please note that the substantial majority of the judges do not consider it an emergency if the other parent is potentially exposing a child to COVID-19 due to violations of lockdown/stay at home orders at this time. There are some cases, such children with special needs or high risk illnesses, wherein a Judge may consider potential exposure an emergency. Please seek legal advice to determine the best course of action in your unique circumstances before filing an emergency order.
#7 – My Wedding Is This Summer. Can I Get a Premarital Agreement Completed?
Yes. Family law attorneys are continuing to work and are available for phone or FaceTime/Zoom consultations. Premarital Agreements or Postnuptial Agreements can continue to be negotiated, drafted and executed.
#8 – I Lost My Job Due to COVID-19. Do I Still Have to Pay Child Support?
Yes. You still need to pay your child support. However, you may want to file a motion with the court to reduce or modify your child support obligations. In Texas, you can request retroactive modification back to the date of filing. Your request to modify may not be heard by a Judge for several weeks or months but it may be beneficial to file a motion with the court sooner rather than later depending on your specific circumstances such as whether your job loss is temporary or permanent. If at all possible, you may want to try to work out a payment plan or alternate arrangement for child support with the other parent before you call a lawyer. If you and the other parent absolutely cannot reach an agreement, then you may need to seek court intervention.
#9 – How Will Stimulus Checks Be Divided Between Divorcing or Recently Divorced Spouses?
President Trump recently signed an economic relief active providing stimulus checks to many Americans. While these checks will benefit many Americans, spouses in the middle of a divorce or recently divorced may have a dispute about how to divide the check or the check may be deposited into an account belonging to your former spouse. The payments will be based on each person’s most recently filed tax return. Considering the extensions of 2019 tax filing deadlines, for some families this could mean 2018 tax returns and for others 2019 tax returns. The payments will automatically be deposited into the bank account associated with the tax return, if automatic deposit was used in the past. If your divorce is pending you are entitled to a portion of the stimulus but you will need to reach an agreement with your spouse about the division of the stimulus especially if the check will be deposited into an account controlled by your spouse or delivered to the formal marital residence. Please seek the advice of counsel.