It’s hard to believe, but we are now nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though hope is finally on the horizon, the reality is that with the rise of COVID-19 rates, social distancing, remote learning, and working from home are likely to continue well into 2021 for many in the DC metropolitan area.
Prolonged social distancing is placing enormous strain on couples and families. That strain, along with the financial instability caused by COVID-19, is creating a perfect storm for spouses and divorced parents who were already experiencing tension in their relationships. To make matters worse, parties desiring to divorce or resolve their (non-emergency) family law issues while the pandemic continues are unlikely to receive immediate relief through the local courts, which have significantly scaled back operations.
A silver lining of the past nine months of the pandemic is that parties have been increasingly utilizing alternative dispute resolution processes such as mediation and Collaborative Divorce to successfully resolve their family law matters without waiting for the courts to resume full operations. Given that these processes can typically help clients reach resolution virtually, without court involvement and in a cost-efficient manner, clients who wish to move forward with their family law matters, including divorce, should seriously consider these options.
Family Law Problems Exacerbated During COVID-19
Relationships are complicated in the best of times. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified family pressures and tested the fragile détente of couples who were managing prior to the pandemic. For example, couples accustomed to independence found themselves stuck at home together and with many area schools continuing remote learning, some working couples were forced to prioritize one parent’s career over the other, magnifying stress in an already tense relationship.
Likewise, for divorced parents sharing custody of their children, COVID-19 has exacerbated already tense co-parenting relationships. These issues arose unexpectedly after many jurisdictions issued Stay-at-Home Orders in the spring. Suddenly, parents found themselves at odds regarding the appropriate social distancing protocols for their children, resulting in some parents refusing to adhere to their agreed-upon or court-ordered custody schedules.
Unfortunately, for some couples who made the decision to separate or divorce during the pandemic, changing financial circumstances have forced them to continue living together until their financial situation improves, so they can afford two households. Hard financial times during COVID-19 have also affected a parent’s ability to pay child support – sometimes leaving the receiving parent with insufficient funds to pay for their children’s necessary expenses.
Backlog of Cases in Family Law Courts
For the immediate future, resolution through the court process continues to be limited. In Maryland and the District of Columbia, most litigation cases pending during the initial court closure have experienced significant delays. Due to the rise in COVID-19 cases this fall, Maryland Courts have once again restricted operations and District of Columbia Court operations continue to be scaled back – resulting in most family law hearings being held remotely. Even when the courts expand operations, they will most likely continue to do so in a gradual way to ensure the safety of both litigants and court personnel. As such, until COVID-19 is in check, almost all individuals in a litigation posture, or contemplating divorce or other family law litigation, should continue to expect significant delays in getting a resolution through the court system.
Alternative Dispute Resolution Processes (Including Mediation and Collaborative Divorce) Provide Needed Solutions Today
So, where does this leave a person who wants resolution in a more timely manner than the courts can provide at this time? From our experience during the pandemic, now, more than ever before, utilizing mediation or Collaborative Divorce allows families to timely address issues in a cost-effective and creative way (and during the pandemic, it is sometimes the only way to do so). Both processes can be successfully conducted virtually, via Zoom or other platforms, from start to finish.
For example, in the situation where a parent has lost his/her job and cannot afford to continue paying the full amount of child support, utilizing alternative dispute resolution processes can facilitate a creative solution that, while not perfect, works for both parents – while also avoiding litigation expenses. Likewise, for the couple that is delaying separating due to financial issues, professionals in a Collaborative Divorce can help parents develop a temporary custody schedule while they are living in the same house to curb the children’s exposure to conflict and give each parent some breathing room.
While both mediation and Collaborative Divorce were previously utilized to resolve family law issues such as divorce, custody, and child support out of court, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the value and importance of these two processes to the forefront. Indeed, many courts, recognizing both their own limitations and the value to families of achieving resolution, are strongly encouraging families to utilize alternative dispute resolution to attempt to settle their disagreements. Not only are both processes well suited for helping clients develop flexible, pragmatic, and non-acrimonious solutions for the unique issues raised during the pandemic, but they also provide clients with the ability to virtually resolve disputes faster, without waiting months (or longer) for the courts to finally address their issues.
While COVID-19 has brought unique challenges and situations, it is important to remember that you are not “stuck” or without options. If you are facing a divorce or dealing with another family law issue, alternative dispute resolution processes, including mediation and Collaborative Divorce, can help you address and resolve your complex questions and improve your situation.
To learn more about mediation and the Collaborative Divorce Process, contact Jennifer Davison (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sarah Zimmerman (email@example.com).