Coronavirus Reality Checks: Surviving Divorce or Separation during the Pandemic

Marilyn B. Chinitz

Amid these unusual times, everybody has on their minds the ripple effects of COVID-19 because we know it has infected everything. Divorcing individuals are not immune. Those contemplating and those in the middle of divorce need to know that COVID-19 will impact their lives in previously unimaginable ways. It will affect your marital estate, investment portfolio, real estate, retirement assets, business assets, and your most important asset—your children.

Underlying conflicts often emerge when couples are together in close proximity of each other for long periods of time. The abrupt and drastic lifestyle change of staying home may have caused more harm than good for couples already dealing with conflict in their marriage. Social distancing, working from home, having limited mobility, and caring for children full time without traditional support systems have become the norm, and it seems that it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. While quarantine is hard on everybody, it’s even harder on those whose marriage have already cracked. It’s not COVID-19 that’s ruining your marriage, but it can cause a divorce to happen a lot sooner.

In my recent webinar, Lunch & Learn: Successfully Navigating Divorce and Separation Amid COVID-19, I was joined by the dynamic family therapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling as we highlighted potential solutions and strategies for unprecedented financial issues, custody and visitation, and family mental health during these challenging times.

If you’re considering divorce, you must examine your options and have reality checks:

Reality Check #1 ‒ Assemble Your Team

While everybody is at home there is an opportunity to contact different attorneys, speak to them, and do your research. Given that a lot of people are working from home and practicing social distancing, you have more time to do your research online, including looking into potential divorce attorneys, therapists, financial experts, and financial advisors.

Whoever ends up on your team, it takes a village to successfully navigate your way through a divorce. You must work collaboratively with your team to decide which battles are worth fighting and what is best to let go of.

Reality Check #2 – Obtain Financial Records & Know Your Financial Picture

A significant part of divorce hinges on dividing assets. Because most of us are home more often than ever now, your spouse is likely at home working as well. Chances are the mail that was going to the office is coming to the home. That mail could include brokerage account statements, financial statements, and other financial documents that are now being sent to your home.

This is an opportunity.

Don’t view it as being a snoop. Instead, look at it as becoming educated on your own financial situation. This is an appropriate time to learn your income from all sources, what debts you have, and get familiar with your expenses. Look for bank statements, canceled checks, credit card statements, tax returns, and life insurance policies. Remember that you’re free to open the mail when it’s addressed to you. And in some cases, go into your spouse’s home office, and even before uttering any word about “divorce,” say you’re concerned because there’s a pandemic going on and want to know what we have.

Reality Check #3 – Get Acquainted with a Forensic Accountant & a Financial Wealth Manager

Couples who are contemplating a divorce or are in a middle of one, have a lot of questions about the COVID-19 economic crisis’ impact on support requirements, property division, and the valuation of assets. Virtually every individual worldwide who has money invested in the markets has now seen their accounts fluctuate dramatically from the February 2020 high (on Valentine’s Day, believe it or not).

Uncertainty will be ongoing, causing values to seesaw for a very significant time and making it difficult for attorneys to predict exactly what’s going to happen. There’s no question that negotiating your financial settlement during this turmoil is going to get more difficult and complex. For business owners, timing may be important in asking for appraisals while those assets have lower values, but they will also have resources available such as the Paycheck Protection Program and Federal Reserve lending programs.

Markets have historically bounced back from deep declines, so we need to brace ourselves for a significant period of low valuations before the markets fully recover. However, like everything else, this is an opportunity for rebalancing and tax planning opportunities. Find the best financial experts you can if you want to maximize the amount you will walk away with in a divorce.

Reality Check #4 – Expect Modifications Aplenty Going Forward

In the post-COVID world, I anticipate there will be more custody and support modifications. There will likely be quite a few cases where a modification of custody will be justified when a parent has intentionally withheld a child from their ex-spouse. In pending cases, where an ex-spouse may have lost income, there will be support modifications. It’s important to realize that merely losing your job doesn’t mean you’ll be entitled to a downward modification of support and relief from your obligations. If you have other assets sitting somewhere, you’ll be required to use those them to support your children. Many valuations will likely need be redone as well.

And as courts begin to emerge with large backlogs, there are opportunities to work collaboratively with other attorneys. With difficulties getting judges on the phone, instead attempt to first work out the issues that come up with other attorneys. Given the backlog, judges won’t want to hear mundane issues—only important things impacting peoples’ lives.

I invite you to watch and share the recording from the recent webinar for further details on these vital topics and concerns, and to hear Dr. Smerling’s perspectives on handling pandemic anxieties and difficult situations involving children during these treacherous times. Contact me if you have questions about navigating the challenges of separation or divorce amid COVID-19.

Please click here to listen to the recording of our Lunch & Learn webinar.

Amid the Pandemic: Families Coming Together … and Coming Apart

Marilyn B. Chinitz

In times of crisis, families typically come together. People decide to avoid unnecessary battles. Arguments are fewer. But that is not the case for unhappy and divorcing couples, many of whom now are experiencing extraordinarily challenging times. Family tensions are exacerbated as COVID-19 continues to impact lives in previously unimaginable ways. Some form of social distancing, working from home, limited mobility, and caring for children full-time without traditional support systems, are all now the norm and will be for the foreseeable future.

Concerns for Our Children.

Children of all ages are experiencing tremendous anxiety from the significant changes in their daily lives—the isolation, the new cleaning/sanitizing routines, and fears created by the pandemic. Limited access to parks, playgrounds, and friends coupled with distance learning, media consumption, and time-filling crafts and games can be sustained for a few weeks, but not for months on end. In divorced or separated families, many children are not spending time with their non-custodial parent because it would present too much of a risk for contracting the virus. Children are understandably confused, upset, depressed, and unfamiliar with how to process their feelings.

Parents’ Challenges.

Parents are juggling and multitasking like never before. They are expected to work from home while at the same time providing full-time care for their children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and supervising online studies and extracurricular lessons. Some parents are doing this alone, without help from anyone—no tutor, spouse, or domestic helper. Simply put: parents are stressed and overwhelmed. They, too, are socially isolated and cannot depend on their normal diversions. Activities they once took for granted—dinner with friends, in-person meetings with a therapist, workouts in the gym, or myriad other traditional methods of dealing with stress—are now out of reach. Additionally, isolation presents parents with some of the unhealthiest of options for dealing with stress: binge eating and alcohol consumption. Moreover, many non-custodial parents find themselves in the untenable position of missing their children as a result of the coronavirus prohibiting travel and visits.

Divorcing Couples.

Those in the middle of divorce litigation are in uncharted waters. Their dispute resolution forum is not available to them. The courts are, for the most part, closed or only hearing cases involving an emergency, such as danger to a child. While some judges are conducting conference calls/Zoom sessions with attorneys, the fact of the matter is that the family courts are not available and will not be for the near future.

One of the most concerning aspects in all of this is the decrease in the value of marital assets—in some instances having decreased by as much as 50‒70 percent. Ongoing negotiations about the division of assets will need to be re-examined. Updated appraisals will be required, including revised business valuations and/or re-calculations of the transfer amounts from one spouse to the other.

And it does not stop there. Historic levels of unemployment, now a reality, are impacting the ability to pay support for the benefit of the children as well as spouses. Unexpected unemployment or the shuttering of businesses are examples of substantial changes in circumstances that will likely prompt countless applications to the court for downward modification of support obligations.

Considering Divorce.

If a marriage was falling apart and on the edge before this pandemic hit home, undoubtedly things will get worse with spouses together in a “lockdown” situation. We could be hopeful that cooler, wiser heads will prevail and that couples having problems can put their emotions and fears aside and either present a united front against these very challenging times or work out their custody and financial issues amicably. But this is unlikely to be the case. Although new divorce proceedings are generally not being instituted because the courts are focusing on emergency issues in the cases already proceeding, people are still at war with one another. Even in jurisdictions where filings are being accepted, do not expect to get any relief from the court soon. We are receiving multiple calls from prospective clients who want to understand what the next best steps are to terminate their marriage and divide assets during an unpredictable, unsettling economy.

Moving Ahead.

Many lawyers are now working with their colleagues to negotiate settlements and resolve issues in the interest of moving cases along, even though the courts are not available. More than ever before, it is incumbent upon the attorneys to assert leadership—and to step in since the judges cannot—to try to work with their adversaries to take a position that is fair and reasonable to both sides and build consensus. Otherwise, everybody loses.

For more on this important topic, please join Marilyn for her May 27, 2020, webinar:

Lunch & Learn: Successfully Navigating Divorce and Separation Amid COVID-19

It’s All About Control

Stacy D. Phillips

As a family lawyer specializing in high net worth and high profile cases for more than 35 years, you can imagine that I have seen it all. Representing many celebrities—often involving complex, high conflict matters—I have observed that whatever the salacious headlines, particular facts, and circumstances of each case, there is one important commonality: control.

It is a given that every case I handle will have its share of “issues,” many of which go beyond the division of assets. Frequently, some urgent situation or chronic problem creates a dispute involving the need/desire/obsession of one party to dominate the other. Neither gender has exclusivity when it comes to pursuing, possessing, and asserting control, whether during the marriage, the divorce, or its aftermath. The reality is: Control is prevalent in any relationship. And, when couples are jockeying for it, a legal case becomes a contest. All too often, contests escalate to wars because, by nature, human beings are competitive. Continue reading

Protecting an Inheritance from the Ravages of a Divorce War

Stacy D. Phillips

It is not uncommon for divorce to bring out the very worst in people, especially when a soon-to-be ex-spouse is used to being the one in control of the relationship. The contentious tug of war can even result in threats to an inheritance that you know was always intended just for you but unfortunately was not kept or segregated as it should have been.

While most people are unlikely to experience a Succession-like drama over control of a multibillion-dollar media conglomerate, you should be keenly aware that money from an inheritance received before or during a marriage can, in fact, be one of the most high-stakes exceptions in a marital estate.

Things get complicated when inherited funds are commingled with marital property or when inherited property has your soon-to-be ex-spouse’s name on title documents. And when things get complicated in divorce, they can trigger an extremely costly legal battle with the ultimate outcome decided by a judge. Continue reading

Until Death Do Us Part

Jacqueline Combs

At the altar, you make hopeful and sincere vows to love and cherish each other until death do you part. Your goals for your long and successful marriage include many milestones: opening your first joint savings account, buying your first home, having a child, getting a dog for your child, having another child…another dog…travel and adventure…planning for a comfortable retirement. Then, out of nowhere, you get an unexpected and devastating phone call. Your spouse of 15 years has dropped dead of a heart attack. An emotionally jolting, dark cloud descends.

As you start to pick up the pieces of your life and shield your children from the unknown, the financial setback of your loss begins to set in. You remember your spouse had a life insurance policy, but can’t remember the name of insurance company or where the policy is located. While your life turns upside down both emotionally and financially, you turn the house upside down to find the vital information you need to move on. Where is the list of user names and passwords for your bank accounts and investments? What is the name of the financial planner we saw? Are the pink slips for the cars and deed to the house in the safe deposit box? Where are the keys to the safe deposit box? If only you had sat down together to get organized.

It makes you think: what vows do you promise to keep if death does part you and your spouse?

Imagine if your bank froze your assets because the only person with the combination to the vault had died. Incredibly, in a widely reported case earlier this year, the wife of the CEO and co-founder of a Canadian crypto-currency exchange (along with the company’s investors) found herself in exactly that position. This CEO, who died unexpectedly while traveling in India in December 2018, was the sole keeper of the password to accounts valued at $190 million in U.S. dollars. Forced to file for creditor protection with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, his widow said his death left the company unable to access the bulk of its cryptocurrency funds.

While your individual portfolio might not include cryptocurrency investments, this is a cautionary tale for every married couple. Complete transparency during the marriage is the key to not leaving your family in a lurch. As unpleasant as it may be to think about, and as difficult as it may seem to find an extra hour to put together, organizing your family’s financial life benefits you now and in the future. It is a way for you to minimize the financial agony your spouse and children may face after your death. It may also prompt important financial discussions to have now with your partner, as uncomfortable or unromantic as they may seem at first. At the very least, this process will give you a clear picture of your financial wellbeing.

There are dozens of workbooks and resources for organizing available in print and online. No matter which one you select, this process will educate both you and your spouse about each other’s finances and records. Start by compiling a complete list of passwords. Take some extra time while you’re focused to identify all your assets and liabilities (those in your name, your spouse’s name, jointly held), and note when and how these assets were acquired. List your family’s insurance coverage (medical, dental, property, auto, life, umbrella) and take steps to fill in any coverage gaps you may find. Talk about making an estate plan if you haven’t already, or updating the one you have—including medical directives for each of you.

While all of this may take you away from Sunday football or Tuesday night Real Housewives, consider the long-term benefits that your short-term sacrifice will have for those you love and cherish.

Two Legal Eagles Discuss Representing Professional Athletes

Stacy D. Phillips

For the past two years, I have enjoyed sharing with you my perspectives on many aspects of family law as they relate to high-net-worth individuals. In this advisory, I want to give you a bird’s-eye view into a conversation I had recently with nationally renowned sports law attorney Jay K. Reisinger, partner at Farrell & Reisinger LLC in Pittsburgh, PA. Jay’s practice focuses primarily on sports law, white collar criminal defense, and complex litigation. It turns out that our areas of legal specialty intersect frequently, as divorce and custody issues present thorny challenges when professional athletes are our clients.

Stacy D. Phillips Jay, how are professional athletes different from C-suite executives in the work you do?

Jay K. Reisinger First and foremost, pro athletes (whether in baseball, hockey, basketball, or football) have exceedingly short earning spans. Unlike top executives whose careers can move upward and outward for many lucrative years, the majority of players make significant dollars for just six to eight years. Not surprisingly, the average pro football player’s career lasts no more than two years. Continue reading

Should You Rush to the Finish Line?

Stacy D. Phillips and Michelle Piscopo

With news that the alimony deduction will expire at the end of this year, many clients are asking if they should rush to finalize their divorce. The answer to that question is, it depends.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (the “TCJA”) made sweeping changes to the tax code and one of the most unexpected was the elimination of the alimony deduction. The alimony deduction had been part of the Internal Revenue Code for the last 75 years and allowed the higher income spouse to shift part of the tax liability on his/her income to the lower income spouse. This shifting of tax responsibility resulted in more after-tax income to allocate between the two households.

Under the TCJA, for any divorce or separation agreements or court orders entered into after December 31, 2018, the party paying alimony will no longer receive a deduction and the party receiving alimony will no longer have to report it as income. For divorce or separation agreements or court orders that are modified after December 31, 2018, the alimony deduction will not be allowed unless the modification expressly states that the TCJA does not apply. There is concern that, without the alimony tax deduction, there will be less incentive for the higher income spouse to pay alimony at a rate that will enable the lower income spouse to support his/her own household.

If you are the party receiving alimony, you might initially think it’s a good idea to wait to finalize your divorce because you won’t have to pay taxes on the alimony payments. Think again. If the tax liability remains with the party earning the income, his or her net income will be lower which translates to a lower alimony payment. While you will avoid tax liability for the payments, the reality is that the amount of alimony you receive will likely be lower than the amount you would have netted if you received the larger payment and paid the taxes on it.

Parties that are in a position to resolve their divorce cases before the end of the year should certainly try to do so in order to take advantage of the alimony deduction. However, if you are not in a position to finalize your divorce, but you have a temporary support order in place, don’t panic. You still have the option of opting out of the TCJA provision when the final order is entered.

Noteworthy Nuances of High Profile and Celebrity Divorce (Part Two)

Stacy D. Phillips

Part Two: A Particular Kind of Tug-of-War

In dissolutions of high-net-worth and celebrity marriages or domestic partnerships, intellectual property rights, profit participation, residuals, and royalties often represent the most valuable of all the assets. They frequently become a battleground for control. Contracts are typically made over long periods of time, and are constantly renegotiated and amended. Valuing such assets can quickly become a hotly contested issue. These assets require a sophisticated and experienced family law attorney, working with a top forensic accountant, who understands the nuances involved.

The matter of support is often a particularly difficult challenge when the major earner of the couple is a professional sports figure. Because their ability to play and earn at the highest levels is limited to a finite time period, support (both spousal and child)—and custody, for that matter—could change dramatically when the professional’s career ends. The lifetime of an entertainer’s career can be similarly brief or span decades, presenting equally complex implications. These are nuances that must be managed when the income of the earning spouse/parent exceeds the couple’s marital standard of living and/or the reasonable needs of the children.

Child custody is another highly nuanced area of family law, particularly when one or both parents are required to be “on location” or travel extensively for business. The amount of time spent with the children, where that time is spent, the level of child support, the ages of the children—all are factors that impact custody agreements. If a parent’s absence is due to filming away from home, for example, is that parent entitled to makeup time? Are the children to visit on location, missing school, friends and their normal routine? Are the children of an age to fly alone? These sorts of custody arrangements are, in many cases, subject to annual renegotiation depending on the working parents’ professional demands. All too often, these negotiations can devolve into contentious Control Wars.

What is especially difficult about most divorce and custody cases is that this tug of war over control does not begin or end in my office or the courtroom. It may go on for years, long after the divorce decree or judgment of paternity is official. I truly believe that a better understanding of how to mitigate control battles would greatly benefit anyone contemplating or in the midst of divorce, and those who suffer from what I term “divorce residue.” Attorneys, even the best ones, cannot be expected to stop these battles or manage the other party. I have seen, however, that if both parties resolve to diminish the legal, financial, and emotional Control Wars, there is hope for the prospect of healing and peace.

Noteworthy Nuances of High Profile and Celebrity Divorce (Part One)

Stacy D. Phillips

Part One: Control is the Common Denominator

As a family lawyer specializing in high-net-worth and high profile cases for more than 30 years, you can imagine that I have seen it all. Representing many celebrities—often involving financially complex, high conflict matters—I have observed that whatever the salacious headlines, particular facts, and individual circumstances of each case, there is one important commonality: control.

It is a given that every case I handle will have its share of “issues,” many of which go beyond the division of assets. Frequently, some urgent situation or chronic problem creates a dispute involving the need/desire/obsession of one party to dominate the other. Neither gender has exclusivity when it comes to pursuing, possessing, and asserting control, whether during the marriage, the divorce, or its aftermath. The reality is: Control is prevalent in any relationship. And, when couples are jockeying for it, a legal case becomes a contest. All too often, contests escalate to wars because, by nature, human beings are competitive.

Control is a fickle power. It can change hands at the flick of a need or want, or due to external forces (such as employment or health problems), or internal circumstances (such as falling in love with someone else). The battle for control is amplified in most personal relationships that fail, and may not be limited to the former couple. It can also include various personal and business associates and advisors.

Celebrity clients often face the same issues as other divorcing individuals; however, there are important nuances at play. There are issues of income, support, child custody, and legal fees, of course, but not of the garden variety. Often it is precisely these complications that can cause the Control Wars, leading to prolonged litigation and negotiations. There are no cookie-cutter solutions.

Many wealthy individuals, and especially celebrities, face paternity suits. In these cases, innocent children often become a lever for control. Moreover, if paternity is established, the father could have substantial child support responsibilities, considerable legal fees, and too often, personal and professional images can be tarnished by leaks to the media from the party trying to gain leverage. Sadly, after the dust settles in these battles, the children of such relationships frequently become collateral damage.

Next month, in Part Two of this article, I will share some interesting nuances particular to high profile, celebrity, and high-net-worth divorces and child custody matters.

Emotional War Games

Stacy D. Phillips

We frequently hear stories about contentious divorces that seem to be right out of the movies. Unfortunately, these situations may not be so far-fetched. They are the emotional war games that some people engage in to assume and retain control during a divorce.

Many divorcing couples do not want to engage in any type of war, especially an emotional one. Contrary to their best intentions, however, individuals can get caught up in the turmoil of feelings, and it seems only natural to initiate or defend themselves in emotional warfare. Some participate with gusto while others do so reluctantly. In either case, attacks are launched and defended against. Casualties and collateral damage are real.

There is the ever-popular “emotional blackmail” maneuver, which is far more common than one might think. This type of battle tactic often involves the children, which is unspeakably sad. Next, there is the “hit ‘em below the belt” ploy used by the classic passive aggressor. Here too, children are often recruited as unwitting allies, and the negative effects can last for many years. Texting and emailing, of course, have become the weapons of choice for many warring couples. Inundating the other with all manner of electronic assaults is far too common. But be warned if you are tempted to go down this path: texts and emails can live forever and are certainly retrievable to be used as evidence against you.

Social media platforms are rife with the detritus of couples at war. Some attackers even engage in a deeply offensive practice known as “revenge porn,” where they post intimate, personal photos of their soon-to-be-ex-spouse, causing humiliation and significantly raising the stakes of battle.

Perhaps Danny DeVito’s character in The War of the Roses said it best. “There’s never a winner, only degrees of losing.”