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

Not So Fast—New PA Law May Not Shorten Your Wait to No-Fault Divorce

Mary Vidas and Michelle Piscopo 

Pennsylvania is set to shorten the time parties need to be living separate and apart from two years to one year, but will that really enable you to get a divorce faster?

Pennsylvania is a “no-fault” state for establishing the grounds for divorce. There are two no-fault grounds— mutual consent by both parties 90 days after the filing and service of a divorce complaint, OR living separate and apart for a period of two years. The grounds for divorce must be established before the court can determine the equitable division of the marital estate and enter a divorce decree. This week, the Pennsylvania legislature approved a bill to shorten the time period for living separate and apart from two years to one year and the bill is on Governor Wolf’s desk waiting to be signed into law. Once the bill is signed, it will go into effect 60 days later.

This new law has been greatly supported by the Family Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the PA Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Often times, the party who will not consent to a divorce will do so in order to collect support for a longer period of time or simply out of spite (we know…hard to believe). The benefits of a shorter waiting period have been discussed and debated for years and most practitioners agree that the shorter waiting period will lessen the emotional turmoil that comes with a divorce and lower legal costs.

All in all, a shorter waiting period sounds like a good thing. However, this new law will only apply to divorce actions filed or to parties who separate AFTER the law goes into effect. While that hardly seems fair, it seems that the only option to avoid the longer waiting period would be to withdraw the divorce action, reconcile and then separate again. Not a very likely solution for most couples.

While there may not be anything you can do if you are already involved in divorce litigation to speed up the process, if you have been contemplating a divorce but haven’t actually separated from your spouse or filed for a divorce—wait! If you suspect that your spouse will not be so willing to consent to a divorce, the best thing you can do to avoid having to wait two years instead of just one year is to put the brakes on separating from your spouse. If you wait to separate until the new law goes into effect, you can potentially shorten your waiting time by a year. While not ideal, the benefits of waiting may outweigh staying in the relationship for a few more months. However, we would never encourage anyone involved in an abusive relationship to delay leaving.

For more information on how this new law may impact you, please contact the Philadelphia attorneys in our Matrimonial Practice Group.