One important thing to remember is that COVID-19 or not, the separation and divorce process is typically not “immediate” in nature. Generally, couples are separated for 1 year before the divorce can be finalized. In discussing your situation with a divorce attorney, they can help you understand what an anticipated timeline might look like to implement your separation and divorce given your specific circumstances and goals.
In some cases, the parties have agreed as to how they want to handle the general terms of property distribution, support and custody. In that scenario, settlement documents can be prepared that implement the terms of the parties’ mutual agreement. A consult with an attorney to discuss these terms may be conducted by phone or videoconference. Any additional information and documents needed may be sent to the attorney through applications such as ShareFile. As well, arrangements can be made for the execution of the settlement documents in a safe manner.
Where the parties cannot agree to all terms on their own or there are certain areas of disagreement, a divorce attorney can help with negotiations and resolution of those sticking points. If direct communications do not overcome those obstacles, there are still other options. Although many courts are closed to non-emergency matters during this time, private mediation and arbitration remain available. Many mediators and arbitrators have quickly shifted to offer virtual and remote mediation sessions which can be conducted with the parties and attorneys present just as they would be in person through the use of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other online meeting applications.
Just as with cases that begin at times when we are not experiencing a pandemic, litigating the case to have a Judge make a decision is still available. Courts may not be available to begin scheduling non-emergency matters for an extended period of time. However, at this time, most courts remain able to accept new filings and filings in current cases. At a minimum, a lawsuit could be initiated during this time if necessary which would begin the formal pleadings and discovery process. This phase typically takes time before hearings are scheduled anyway and can be handled while courts may be on hiatus during COVID-19 so that the case is poised for hearing once Courts resume and the backlog is cleared.
In States where private settlement agreements are sufficient to resolve marital claims, those settlement documents can be formalized during times the Courts may not be available. In States where such Agreements must be approved by a Judge and Courts are unavailable, the parties should still be able to formalize the terms but may need to wait until Courts are fully accessible again for approval. Similarly, for the final divorce in most jurisdictions, the Court will either require an appearance of the parties or submission of appropriate documents evidencing the parties have met the criteria for a final divorce. These pleadings may be able to be filed with a hearing or review set for after Courts resume.
In summary, it is important to speak with a divorce attorney about your goals, options and timeline for a separation and divorce during pandemic. In most cases, many issues can be resolved even during this time of social distancing with any remaining work which requires Court intervention to be handled after Courts resume full scheduling.