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Divorce During a Pandemic
How to navigate this difficult decision while living through unprecedented times.

by Matt Cosentino, Liz Hunter, and Sydney Kerelo

Going through a divorce is an emotional time for anyone, but those feelings are compounded in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. Facing a change in daily routines, work and living situations and quarantine restrictions, couples have enough reason to stress without adding divorce into the equation. Here to guide them through this unique time are local professionals who have the experience to deal with divorce and its repercussions no matter what else is happening in the world. They offered some key pieces of advice that could bring you some much-needed peace of mind. 

Q: How have operations adapted with the lockdown, such as using Zoom to meet with clients, electronic signatures and dealing with delays? Also, how are clients dealing with privacy concerns while trying to conduct meetings in confidence while possibly quarantined with their spouse?  
 “Archer has adapted to the lockdown very well.  While initially it was a juggle to move to working remotely, our attorneys, staff and most importantly our clients have adjusted very well. A divorce is always a time of uncertainty and the pandemic has led to additional anxiety as many divorcing couples are continuing to live together. We have stressed to every client that being  reasonable is essential to getting through this time. We have also taken steps to maintain our accessibility for clients by adding additional flexibility  to call and Zoom times. We recognize that many of our clients are also dealing with the juggle of having their kids with them and addressing educational  responsibilities in addition to maintaining their employment. We are meeting new clients (virtually), maintaining filings, conducting hearings, mediating cases and resolving matters with the same level of consistency and dependability that people expect from Archer.”  
Stephanie Zane, Esq.

Q: Why should couples consider mediation for divorce proceedings during this time?
 “It’s not very different than in non-COVID times in that mediation gives the power to the clients to be making all of the decisions as it relates to their divorce. But especially  now, what’s happening is that when clients are  represented by attorneys, if  they’re not agreeing then the case has to go to the court system, and typically the courts slow down the process and it becomes more costly. And right now, most of the courts are only hearing emergency cases, so the couple gets stalled in their attempts to continue forward in their divorce. Any couple that has gone through a mediated divorce is usually getting the court’s approval pretty quickly because the judges know these parties have voluntarily submitted to private mediation.”
Roseann Vanella, Professional Mediator
Advanced Mediation Solutions

Q: What happens after mediation? Does the agreement need to go through the court as well?
 “When we are done with the mediation, if the clients are not currently represented, we will recommend mediator-friendly attorneys. The attorney  then takes the  agreement that we prepare—which is called the memorandum of understanding and is not a legal document—and adds the legal language, and it becomes the marital settlement agreement. If they’re using one attorney, one person becomes the plaintiff and the other can waive their right, and the attorney then files with the court.”
Carmela DeNicola, Professional Mediator
Advanced Mediation Solutions

Q: Can child support and/or alimony be  adjusted if someone lost a job or has  reduced pay as a result of the pandemic?
 “Alimony and child support are subject to modification upon a showing of substantial changed circumstance. In the alimony statute, a person who is involuntarily unemployed for 90 days is presumed  to have shown a changed circumstance. There is no specific rule for child   support. The courts have not adopted rules regarding support modification based upon COVID-19. With that said, if you can show that your financial circumstances have changed for the long period of time, you can file a motion with the court. The court will consider government benefits like unemployment compensation and worker’s compensation, so provide those records with your motion. If the judge does not have the records in advance of the hearing, he or she will not consider them. Even though the courthouses are closed, court is still being conducted by telephone and video. It takes about a month for a motion to be heard. During that time, do your best to pay your support order. Even a partial payment shows good faith.”
Andrew L. Rochester, Esq.
Morgenstern & Rochester
Cherry Hill

Q: How are matters of custody being handled while families are asked to  quarantine/social distance?
“Although these are unprecedented times, most jurisdictions in New Jersey agree that parenting time should not be suspended during the pandemic without actual proof and evidence that the other parent has violated the government requirements or that a child is at harm if parenting time was to continue. Most jurisdictions have also acknowledged that transporting children for custody and parenting time exchanges is essential travel and should continue. 

 “Because children of divorced or separated parents are usually part of two households, the adults and other family members in both households should be following all social distancing guidelines and executive orders from the governor. However, neither parent should use the COVID-19 pandemic to violate custody and parenting time orders. In those instances where parenting time has been lost, the courts are often establishing temporary remedies or allowing for makeup time. Sanctions will be entered in extreme circumstances of a parent with- holding children without just cause.”
Kathleen Stockton, Esq.
Stockton Family Law

Q: Considering the level of economic uncertainty right now, what can couples do to protect their finances as they pursue a divorce?
“Families that  are breaking up in the middle of an economic crisis like we are having now cannot afford to take their eye off the ball when it comes to their investments and overall financial picture. I realize that the trauma of the marriage breaking up is reason enough to do so, but if you do, you are likely to end up in even worse financial shape. If you have a financial advisor, now is the time to lean on them to help protect your assets. … Unless the divorce is finalized, it’s never too late to bring in another professional to help with the division of assets and this should never cost you any money to have this conversation either. Unlike  your attorney or the accountant, you should never have  to pay to talk about your money. Zoom and Go-To Meeting have made it easier than ever to do so within the comfort of your own home.”
Jim Turpin
Chelsea Wealth Management

Q: If this pandemic has placed added financial strain on a person who is also going through a divorce, what options can they explore for relief?  
“It  is common to see divorcing couples struggle with finances, as many times they separate into two households, with a new set of separate expenses. This current pandemic has made it extra tough for families by hurting employment  dramatically, with many folks on unemployment or working from home. If the marriage cannot be saved, the couple can pursue a non-contested  or contested divorce. Uncontested  divorce  is possible if the couple can agree to terms and have a Property Settlement Agreement prepared that divides the financials as they agree. A contested divorce would be necessary if the parties cannot agree to all of the issues such as finances and children. If finances are the main problem and are bad enough, we often  see bankruptcy as the last resort and most efficient way to deal with them. The intersection of family law and  bankruptcy can be very tricky, so my advice would be to stay organized and consult counsel experienced in both areas.”
David N. Reinherz, Esq.
Reinherz Law Offices

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 3 (May 2020).
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