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Can I Get A Divorce During COVID-19 Shutdown?

Pending and New Divorce Cases in Connecticut during COVID-19 Shutdown – What Can I Do Now?

The framework below outlines what actions can or should be taken in family law matters (and why) during the COVID-19 shutdown.  The list is broken down by family matter type:

  1.  New Divorce Cases

These can still be filed now, and it may be advantageous to get the process started sooner rather than waiting to file amidst the flood of cases which are likely to come all at once when the Courts resume regular functioning.

  1. Pending Cases

While in many ways already pending matters are on hold, that does not mean the case should gather dust and creak to a complete halt just because the Courts are mostly closed.  Consider what tasks and preparation can be accomplished during this period, and what new issues may arise from the current circumstances. A Westport divorce attorney can guide you through this process.

  1. Restraining Orders/Domestic Violence

Being forced into close, unremitting proximity for an extended period of time during the current “stay at home” orders may result in tension boiling over, sometimes dangerously.  If you are at risk, the Courts remain open to entering restraining orders.  This can generally be accomplished by submission of the proper form, which will result in an immediate granting or denial of the application and then a hearing to determine on a longer-term basis whether there will be a restraining order.

[Restraining Orders: Applications for Relief from Abuse | Civil Protection Orders]

If you believe you are in immediate danger, you should call 911.

  1. Parenting Plan/Visitation Orders

It is almost certain that even the best crafted parenting plan did not anticipate the current pandemic circumstances.  Optimally, both parents can work out a mutually agreeable plan across both households (and sometimes more) to ensure the safety of the minor children involved (not to mention other family members).  If one parent is placing the minor children at the risk of harm by their unsafe practices, then an emergency custody motion may be required – and those are still being heard and decided by the Courts.  However, the situation also lends itself to one parent withholding the children based on unfounded allegations, which if left unaddressed could leave the children without access to the other parent for an extended period of time.  That situation, too, may pose a risk to the children so that an emergency custody motion is warranted.  Where essential workers, such as health care providers, are still going to work, that may also give rise to contentions on both sides of this issue.

You should speak with experienced family counsel immediately to help you evaluate if your situation meets the criteria to be filed as an Emergency Priority1 Matter  (e.g. emergency custody motion) and an immediate remedy pursued and/or how to best protect your parental rights once the Courts move closer to or resume normal operation.

  1. Child Support, Alimony, and Other Financial Orders

Despite the current circumstances and limited access to the Courts, it is still important to be making initial financial claims, seeking enforcement of obligations being unfairly avoided, as well promptly seeking modifications based on a substantial or material change in circumstances.  There are going to be many breadwinners who will find themselves in desperate need of reduced alimony or child support obligations, while there are many dependents who may find themselves unfairly deprived of alimony or support by someone trying to take advantage of the current situation.  For pending divorce cases, what is or is not a violation of the automatic orders – or where relief should be granted from the automatic orders – will be an important question in many cases, for example in order to avoid a significant financial loss from market volatility.  You should speak with experienced family counsel immediately in order to put yourself in the best strategic position, now and once the Courts resume regular functioning.

  1. Closely held businesses

If your divorce case involves a closely held business, it will be a significant question if and to what extent that business will be affected by the economic effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.  As the business owner, you may need to prove that the business’s value and income have been significantly reduced.  As the spouse of the business owner, you may need to prove that the business is not going to be negatively affected over the long term, or that it in fact will benefit from the current circumstances in some way.  Whatever side of this issue you find yourself, you will need experienced family counsel to ensure that your position is well represented and that you obtain a fair result.

  1. Other Modification and Enforcement Issues

The pandemic and related economic circumstances may have complicated, stalled, or rendered impossible compliance with various orders so that relief will be needed in Court in the form of a modification. This may also be a time when one party may try to take advantage of the current unprecedented circumstances to avoid their responsibilities or take other improper and unjustified actions.  A Court order is required to be followed until it is formally modified by another Court order.  However, inability to comply may provide a defense.  Whichever side of this situation you may find yourself, it is important to put a legal strategy in place with experienced counsel as soon as practicable.

WHY TAKE ACTION NOW?

1)  FILE NOW:  To create a placeholder on the court calendar.  The filing of new matters is still being accepted by the Courts.  In general, a typical divorce in Connecticut can take between 6 and 18 months.  The COVID-19 shutdown will likely back-up the family court calendar.  There is work that can be done on your case now to hit the ground running when the Court resumes regular functioning.  Waiting to file may result in greater delay.

2) PRESERVE YOUR RETROACTIVITY:  Filing and serving your case or motion sooner rather than later can be materially important to your case and claims, most particularly for modification purposes.  Service of process is still happening.  Even if you cannot get into court immediately, take the steps you can to ensure an ability to claim this retroactivity.  Don’t wait and find out later that you may have lost the ability to do so.

AS A PRACTICAL MATTER, HOW SHOULD I APPROACH MY FAMILY LAW MATTER DURING THE COVID-19 SHUTDOWN?

1)  COMPROMISE WITH YOUR SPOUSE – NEGOTIATE A SETTLEMENT:  The immediate, real world answer is that Family Courts are simply not currently accessible to settle disputes (except for Emergency Priority 1 Matters), therefore compromising with your spouse or ex-spouse is your first and best option.  There are a variety of options for alternative dispute resolution, other than formal litigation, which are still functioning (most often remotely) even during the Courts’ period of limited operations.  Experienced family counsel can help you. figure out if any such option is right for you.  Even with the Courts shut down for the most part, you may still be able to make some progress now. When the Courts do resume normal operation, it is likely that their calendars will be back-logged for months.  Inevitably, it will be easier and quicker to present an agreement to the Court – and the Court will likely prioritize its receipt and review of such agreements.

If there was ever a time for cooperation, patience, and finding an amicable solution where possible, the time is now.  Taking steps toward a negotiated agreement now may help you to make the most of the time available.

2) MEMORIALIZE YOUR AGREEMENT:  If you manage to find a compromise with your spouse, memorialize the agreement in writing.  However, you should still plan to have that agreement formally submitted to the Court as soon as practical.

[Remember that court orders must be followed and you cannot unilaterally engage in self-help even if you experience a material change in circumstances.  An attorney cannot advise you to disregard court orders.  If you have genuine concern, by way of example, about the imminent health and safety of your child, you should consult an attorney concerning your options.]

3) CALL NOW / EMERGENCY MOTION  If you cannot agree on the areas of dispute, health/safety concerns emerge, or an emergency situation develops – especially one involving the physical or mental welfare of minor children – immediately consult an experienced family attorney who can file an ex parte or emergency motion that falls within the Emergency Priority 1 Matters that the Family Court is still scheduling.

Contact our Westport, CT divorce attorneys to get the legal advice you need

If you are going through a divorce in Fairfield County, Needle | Cuda is ready to help. We provide highly responsive service and effective representation focused on positive results. To reserve a consultation, call us today at 203-429-4151 or contact our Westport office online.

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