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Separation and Divorce During COVID-19: Steps to Take During Lockdown

May 05, 2020

Despite being told that “this is the new normal”, there is nothing normal about the current coronavirus pandemic shutdowns and the related experiences people are enduring throughout Virginia, and the world.  Many families are hunkered down in a home where parents are trying to assume new roles that may include classroom teacher, child entertainer, and in some cases, a full-time spouse.  Every family has its own dynamic which develops into their “normal” lives.  Some function and some do not.  With the current disruption there are many families who were not functioning for whatever reason before the shutdown and are now faced with an intense dose of that dysfunction on a daily, if not hourly basis.  What should you do when the looming reality of a possible marital spilt before the quarantine is now imminent?

Keep It Together and Put the Children First

The paramount priority for a family with minor children is to safeguard and protect the child or children’s best interests. It is fundamental.  Such a statement may seem obvious to any parent.  However, when in crisis, even the most level-headed, best intended, individual may lose sight of their child’s needs and fail to realize that their conduct and interaction may contribute to a child’s suffering during an unsure and disconcerting time.  And then put a global pandemic not seen since the last century in the mix.  If you find yourself quarantined with a de facto estranged spouse and have minor child or children living in the home, you must do your best to keep your child’s perspective at the forefront of your priorities.  Refrain from any hostility, no matter how subtle, with your spouse within earshot of your child.  If you must have it out with your spouse, do so when the child or children can’t witness it.  Your attorney will thank you.  Your children will thank you when they are older.  It is the right thing to do.

Put It Together and Optimize Your Time

Optimize your time during the shutdown.  If you are one of the many Virginians who have been put out of work or are working remotely from home, you may have extra time on your hands to tend to matters you’ve otherwise neglected.  Put this time to good use by getting your affairs in order.  Make a list of income documents, tax returns, bank accounts, personal property, retirement accounts, real property, investments, and debts.  Gather statements and other correlating documentation that will help you identify and value property.  Having this information organized and accessible will make it easier to provide to your attorney when the time comes. 

Emergency Matters Before the Court

The Supreme Court of Virginia has virtually shut down all civil court proceedings throughout the Commonwealth.  A select few proceedings are still being heard by the courts generally on a very strict emergency basis.  Protective order petitions, Child Protective Services matters, and emergent custody issues requiring a timely temporary order are receiving priority.  These types of matters may find their way into a very streamlined or virtual court room during the Court’s shutdown order.  Other matters involving a lengthy pendente lite hearing or divorce trial are being set on the back burner and will have to be docketed when the Court gives the local courts the green light to do so. 

Actions You Can Take Now, Outside of Court

Nevertheless, this does not mean that you cannot contact an attorney amidst the shutdown to get advice, discuss concerns, and get answers.  There are still many issues that can be resolved without making a court appearance.  If two parties can agree on terms of divorce, spousal/child support modification, custody/visitation arrangements, or other family law matters that merely require the court to act in an administrative capacity, then those matters can often be finalized during the shutdown.  If you are in a situation that needs to be addressed and believe you are stuck and unable to act, think again.  Reach out to counsel and explore your options.  You don’t have to wait.  Just like the coronavirus pandemic and consequential shut down will eventually end, things will get better.  Things will return to normal.  In fact, that new normal may be a better normal. 

Patrick Maurer is a Pender & Coward shareholder focusing his practice on family law matters.