Keeping Your Sanity during a COVID Custody Fight

Stacy D. Phillips

As we mark one year since the first shelter-in-place orders were imposed, there is practically no part of divorce that the COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted. In too many ways, the frustration at our lack of control over the events of this last year and now well into the first quarter of 2021 has exacerbated the emotional, psychological, and legal wars of separation and divorce. A particularly active battlefield where control becomes a constant tug-of-war has been the highly charged disagreements that come with fights over child custody.

With tensions as high as ever, I have taken note that many of my divorce cases that would normally settle are not settling—not just the ones involving custody. Moreover, as tensions are higher than usual, parents who are separating or divorcing are now, all too often, using disagreements over their children to score points against their ex-partner. Making matters worse, these unhappy couples have often been stuck in the same household without the normal boundaries between life and work or they may be living in separate homes but do not look at COVID-19 protections the same way, causing an accelerated unraveling.

Keeping sane during a custody fight is not easy, and especially so during COVID-19. It requires positive thinking, setting aside pettiness, and finding creative solutions that are in the best interest of your children. Despite the ongoing uncertainties of managing this school year, securing vaccine appointments for loved ones, and worrying about our health and safety, there are many ways to keep your cool during one of life’s most stressful and unfortunate circumstances.

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Promoting Peace during the Holidays

Stacy D. Phillips

There is almost nothing else that brings underlying family tensions to a head quite like the holidays. For separating, separated, divorcing, and divorced families, this time of year can be highly emotional and stressful. The primary reasons that personal relationships break down—mismatched value systems and power struggles over things big and small—are often on display at the Thanksgiving table or when planning Christmas/Hanukkah gifts for your children or in deciding which side of the family to visit at which time.

We can anticipate that, much like everything else 2020 has impacted, this year’s family in-person and virtual gatherings may be uniquely high on tension and disagreement. Many people are anxious about their health amid another rise in COVID-19 cases or uncertainties surrounding their personal financial situations in the current economy. Add in the political and social unrest in this country and you have a recipe for feeling like you have a lack of control over what is happening in your world.

Like addressing the emotional, psychological, and legal wars of separation and divorce, finding peace during the holidays often requires responding rather than reacting, positive thinking instead of negative strategies, and finding new peaceful solutions to ongoing differences. Despite the political, cultural, and public health uncertainties, there are many opportunities to making the 2020 holiday season a peaceful one.

Reach Out & Be Kind

At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people were more likely to empathize with each other, make sacrifices, and reach out to each other with a heightened sense of humanity to say: “we are in this together.” Now that we are nearly nine months into the pandemic, many people, especially those that are separating and divorcing, are fighting over things that are not quite earth-shattering and hating each other with a vengeance.

This holiday season remember that people are struggling, whether impacted by COVID-19 or those who lost work. In addition to focusing on what you can do for others by making that extra donation to the food bank and expressing gratitude to doctors, nurses, first responders, and essential workers, call and check in on family and friends. They may be having a tougher time with loneliness than anyone realizes. When you look back on this time many years from now, you will want to remember the holidays as a positive time when you could focus on others and set aside the strife.

Cooperate to Make New (or Simplify Old) Traditions

If there was ever a year to be flexible and cooperate with your ex for the good of your children, 2020 is it. Many of us will experience frustration that, because of COVID-19, we cannot have the same large family gatherings or have our children easily split time between both parents.

Although nobody knows when the pandemic will end, we will all have to find patience and adapt to the current circumstances. That does not mean old traditions need to end and we should resign ourselves to being alone. Instead, there are new opportunities to see relatives from both your and your ex’s families via Zoom and find creative ways to share time with old friends and family members and carry out old traditions together virtually. Make time for your ex’s family and in-laws if you can, even if only online. When deciding who to have at your table (safely!) or which relatives to invite to Zoom, be as inclusive as possible.

Take Care of Yourself COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on us physically and psychologically. Not only has the disease directly impacted many of us, but we have all been hit with fatigue and stress. Many of us have been rightfully concerned about others and may be caring for someone else during this time, but do not forget that your physical and mental health matters too. Find time to engage in more of what you love about the holidays. Continue to get regular and proper exercise to vent frustration, tune up your mind and body, and give yourself more energy to face challenges. When you have taken care and control of yourself, it is that much easier to let the happiness and positive energy from the holidays happen.

Mediation for Family Law Disputes—Is It a Cure-All, a Band-Aid Precursor to Litigation, or Something in Between?

Alan R. Feigenbaum

If during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic you, and/or your spouse, have made the decision to part ways, then there’s a good chance you have considered or read about mediation as a potential way forward. Mediation, including online mediation, is seemingly all the buzz right now. It has become an integral part of the judicial systems in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Think before you act. All else being equal—if you were asked whether you prefer to “mediate” or “litigate,” you probably would choose the former. What you should consider, carefully, is whether or not your family dynamic and your relationship with your soon-to-be ex-spouse is suitable for mediation.

What are the factors to consider when you make your decision? What due diligence should you undertake before saying “yes” or “no” to mediation? Cost is an obvious factor, but let’s dig deeper. Start by asking a simple question: how did your spouse treat you during the marriage—emotionally, financially, as a parent, as a partner? If the answer to all of these categories is resoundingly awful, then think twice about mediation. It may be emotionally taxing to dredge up what has played out during your marriage when you make this calculus, but the alternative is to dive right into the process, cold. Continue reading

Perhaps Your Biggest Asset Following Divorce: The Bank Account of Emotional Capital

Alan R. Feigenbaum

A necessary part of every divorce action is financial disclosure in the form of a “Statement of Net Worth,” in which a client details their assets, liabilities, and monthly expenses. When clients send the form back, we attorneys are laser-focused on whether each and every asset and liability has been disclosed: bank accounts, business interests, real estate, whole life insurance, loans, mortgages, etc.

What you will not find on any Statement of Net Worth is what I have come to call the Bank Account of Emotional Capital. I’m sure you’re wondering how we go about defining this mysterious, intangible asset. Very simply: what you have in this invisible but quite essential account represents your ability to transition to the next chapter of life—after divorce.

Each divorce case is unique. Everyone’s familial circumstances are unique. There will always be divorce cases that do not lend themselves to a resolution prior to trial. That said, in many divorce cases, the time will come when the attorney can see an “Exit” door for their client, meaning a path to resolving the dispute, well before trial is on the horizon. When that happens, the opportunity to make a sizeable deposit to a client’s Bank Account of Emotional Capital is there for the taking. Continue reading

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