John whitbeck headshotBy John Whitbeck

[03.24.2020 Leesburg]   Every family in Virginia is grappling with the impact of Coronavirus/COVID-19. But what about your family law case? Whether you are currently litigating or already have a court order covering your family situation, you should educate yourself on how the pandemic affects your legal matters.

Child Custody and Visitation

Child custody and visitation is probably the biggest area of family law impacted. Here are a few examples:

  • Your custody order has a provision for days off from school (like snow days) which determines which parent would have custody of the children in such an event. It’s almost certain nobody contemplated a virus would shut down schools for several weeks or even for the year.
  • Your custody order determines visitation based on the school year and summer. If school is in fact canceled for the rest of the year, it calls into question whether the school year is in fact over.
  • You live a long distance from your ex-spouse or partner. Your child/children in common have to travel long distances for visitation. You may even have a child who has to fly to visitation.
  • Your custody order has a “right of first refusal” provision meaning if the parent having custody needs childcare they have to ask the other parent first to be the provider. The virus has impacted people’s jobs differently, so one parent may be off work and the other still has to work and needs child care.

So what do you do? Remember that most courts are closed except in cases of emergency. So that leaves us with no ability to get a judge to resolve a dispute in most cases. There is no easy answer to issues like the above examples, but remember – how you act now can impact a future custody proceeding. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself two questions and act accordingly: 1) what is in the best interests of my children, and 2) if I went in front of a Judge would I look like the unreasonable parent?

It’s also important to remember that your children are dealing with the uncertainty and even the anxiety they may be feeling in this crisis. Being a mature parent in this situation can only benefit them.

Spousal Support and Child Support

While the loss of life is by far the biggest impact of the virus, the economic impact is certainly a massive problem. Many parents paying spousal support and/or child support may not only experience a drop income, but they may also even lose their job.  The same goes for parents receiving support.  The loss of that support can have a huge impact on the family budget.

Unless you specifically agreed your spousal support was non-modifiable, you may have a basis to request the court modify your spousal support if the pandemic has impacted your income, or worse, cost you your job. This is true whether you are paying support or receiving it.

Child support is always modifiable, so the virus may give you a basis to seek a modification of child support. You should contact an attorney immediately to discuss your options for modifying your spousal support/child support payments. Many parents rely heavily on the support payments they receive to survive. If you are receiving support, you should discuss with an attorney whether you are at risk of losing your payments because of the current situation.

Divorce

In addition to the above issues with custody and support, the biggest problem spouses will face in divorce is a delay. Many states like Virginia have long waiting-periods to get divorced already. Now the pandemic is adding additional delay by courts closing and hearings being removed from the docket. What’s worse, even if they get rescheduled there will be such a backlog you might be adding months to your divorce process.

You should use the delay to get as prepared for your case with your attorney as you can. Just because you can’t go to court doesn’t mean you can’t still prepare. For example, make sure you have given over all the documents you need in the discovery process and talk to your attorney about any additional facts you haven’t discussed yet.  While you may not feel safe meeting in person, make sure you check in with your attorney regularly for updates and progress in your case.  A lot of work can still be done even when the courts are not hearing cases.

You may also want to consider taking advantage of mediation or arbitration as a means of settling your case so you don’t have to wait for an actual court hearing. While this may add costs in the short term, you may actually save money in the long run by settling.

At some point, this crisis will pass and your family law matters will get resolved. Contact our firm today to schedule a time to discuss your unique situation and how we can help in your family case.

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Posted in: Family Law