Even in the best of times, divorce is stressful and challenging. In the midst of a pandemic, those challenges are multiplied. That’s why we’ve compiled answers to some common questions about divorce during the COVID-19 crisis. We hope this information will alleviate some of the stress you may be feeling. Visit the Rocket Lawyer Covid-19 Legal Center to find COVID-19 legal information and resources for individuals and families.
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How can mediation help with the divorce process?
If the split from your spouse is amicable or at least not too bitter, you may opt for divorce mediation instead of going to court. If both parties agree, this arrangement can offer numerous benefits, including the ability to bypass court bottlenecks caused by the pandemic.
Mediators are often retired judges or others with experience settling disputes. Mediation may be done via Zoom or other videoconferencing applications that enable the mediator to speak with each party privately in separate breakout sessions. Even if you and your spouse have both agreed to mediation, you may not want to be in the same room during the process. This means you’ll need to think about the logistics involved, including supervision for young children, who may not be able to leave the home.
Unlike the court process, mediation is non-binding. The point is to reach an agreement on the terms of the divorce, including property division and child custody. This way, you can dissolve the marriage through a mutual agreement and file for an uncontested divorce.
Even if you do decide to go through the court system, it’s always better to work toward a settlement before going to trial. Of course, this may not be possible in every case.
Are courts hearing divorce cases now?
Thirty-four states suspended in-person court proceedings statewide in response to the COVID-19 crisis, while judges in 16 states made their own decisions at the local level. Although some states are hearing a few in-person cases that have been deemed essential, divorce cases typically aren’t considered urgent. However, many courts are facilitating online divorce proceedings.
Since court proceedings will resume on different dates in different places, you’ll need to check with your local court system about whether and how it is hearing divorce cases.
How does an online divorce work?
An online divorce is a lot like the video meetings you may be having with colleagues these days. Instead of taking place in a courtroom, divorce proceedings are happening via video calls, with the attorneys, judge, and other relevant parties all appearing on the same screen. In addition, more courts now allow parties to file legal documents online. However, e-filing may not be available for all types of cases.
You’ll have to check with your local court system to find out about the availability and options for virtual divorce proceedings, but most places allowing online divorce, such as Michigan, are using Zoom. One of the main differences between online and in-person proceedings is that parties cannot communicate discreetly with counsel through the video app while court is in session.
The online process mirrors its in-person counterpart, beginning with filing the initial complaint online. Then, the judge decides whether to conduct depositions and the main court proceedings virtually. Depending on the case, the judge may decide to postpone proceedings until they can happen in person.
If you and your attorney decide you’d rather conduct proceedings in the courtroom instead of virtually, then you may want to postpone the divorce. You may decide your divorce case is too heated for an online resolution, or you may be concerned about exposing children in the home to the process. However, if your spouse filed the complaint, your spouse will need to agree to the delay. A family law attorney will be able to answer any questions you may have.
How do I find an attorney if I’m stuck at home?
Each party in a divorce must have separate counsel. Fortunately, most lawyers have embraced the internet as an effective means of connecting with clients. Instead of meeting with potential attorneys at their offices, you can do so over the phone or via video chat. We recommend that you select at least three well-qualified lawyers to interview. You’ll want to find one who makes you feel confident and comfortable.
Once you choose a lawyer, you should be able to sign the representation agreement remotely and transfer funds in accordance with that agreement. Rocket Lawyer is offering RocketSign for free for a limited time. Get access to digital signatures for all of your document needs with RocketSign.
How can we fulfill our state’s legal separation requirement if we’re quarantined in the same home?
Being legally separated but living under the same roof can be awkward, to say the least. But living apart may be impractical or unaffordable because of COVID-19. It’s important to understand that legal separation doesn’t necessarily require separate addresses.
Nearly one-third of all states (and the District of Columbia) require a period of legal separation or a waiting period before you can finalize a divorce. Here are just a few examples of states with such requirements:
- Illinois (six-month waiting period).
- North Carolina (one-year legal separation).
- New Jersey (18-month waiting period).
Legal separation doesn’t necessarily require physical separation. In this way, it is like the difference between legal and physical custody of minor children. Even if you live under the same roof, you and your spouse may be legally separated by maintaining separate financial accounts, dividing time spent with your children, and otherwise living separate lives, as specified by a Separation Agreement.
However, some states (including North Carolina) do specifically require spouses to be physically separated prior to divorce. There is no legal action required to initiate a period of physical separation in North Carolina, so courts will generally accept that the parties have fulfilled this requirement unless one party disputes it.
Given the differences in divorce and family laws from state to state, it’s best to get state-specific information about legal separation before making any decisions. Contact a lawyer licensed in your state to learn more.
Can my former spouse and I live in the same home after our divorce?
Yes. Many divorced couples choose to stay in the same home either for financial reasons or to co-parent their children. Complications arising from the COVID-19 crisis, particularly stay-at-home and quarantine orders, may leave you with few options other than to live in the same home.
Despite residing under the same roof, you and your ex will need to stick with the terms of the Divorce Settlement Agreement, which may include separate visitation times, child support payments, and spousal support. If you continue living together after the divorce decree, you may need to revise the agreement to reflect any financial changes related to sharing resources, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, and food.
How can I be sure my minor children are safe during the COVID-19 crisis while still adhering to a shared custody agreement?
Generally, courts have continued to enforce child custody and visitation orders, even where stay-at-home orders are in place. Ideally, children will not be exposed to unsafe conditions at either household and can maintain proper social distancing. However, some parents may have reason to distrust their ex-spouses or may otherwise be anxious about shared custody during this time.
If you have children with compromised immune systems, for example, you may want to consider video visitation for one parent and sole physical custody for the other. Similarly, parents who are health care workers or are otherwise at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 may want to limit their parenting time to virtual visitation.
Courts will base their custody and visitation decisions on what’s in the best interests of each child, pursuant to the laws and guidelines of the state. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Make the right legal choices for you and your family
Divorce is usually a difficult process for everyone involved, even when it’s the right decision. Protecting your interests and those of your children requires an understanding of applicable divorce and family laws. Make sure you’re making the right decisions by getting professionally sound answers to any legal questions you may have.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.