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Divorce Done Differently
Local attorneys discuss the pandemic’s lasting impact on divorce proceedings.

by Liz Hunter

Even as we emerge from the pandemic bubble and reintroduce activities into our lives, there are some things that could take more time to feel “normal” and others that could be changed for good. If you ask attorneys in the family law specialties, divorce is one of those things.

One of the most remarkable aspects that attorneys have noticed is an uptick in clients seeking consultations about divorce. “From my personal experience practicing family law for over 23 years, I felt as though the divorce rates did, in fact, increase in New Jersey,” says Kathleen Stockton, Esq., of Stockton Family Law. “In addition to litigants actually filing for divorce, I have definitely fielded more than usual inquiries from people seeking advice and general information about separation and divorce.” She predicts this will continue, especially now that restrictions are being lifted and people are getting vaccinated.

Roseann Vanella and Carmela DeNicola, of Advanced Mediation Solutions, say they witnessed this as well, especially among health care workers and teachers. “Families were faced with work, life and child care changes all at once and that was further compounded with fear and stress of the unknown with the COVID-19 health crisis. Combine that with the demographic in South Jersey where you have a great number of health care workers and teachers. The result was that we saw and are continuing to see a growing number of divorces with couples in these occupations. You cannot blame these divorces on the pandemic. The pandemic and the combined additional stress factors simply tipped the scales toward divorce likely sooner than later,” they say.

“Further, because the courts were on limited schedules, we had a great number of attorneys refer clients to us for mediation.”

Just like everything else, divorces had to go virtual during the pandemic. Having a platform like Zoom helped keep things moving but also presented challenges for privacy, says Stephanie Zane, Esq., of Archer & Greiner, P.C. “Initially, many people were unfamiliar with Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms. Once that hurdle was overcome, then the logistics of how and when to meet needed to be tackled. Clients were juggling work, being quarantined with their spouses, children attending school virtually all while trying to make life decisions. The stress level was magnified for everyone,” she says. “However, as the months passed, everyone settled into their routines and virtual meetings became the norm.”

Zane says virtual communication with clients will likely remain a component moving forward. “Clients have really appreciated being able to connect virtually as it gives the added sense of understanding and true conversation. Moving forward, my sense is that we will continue to offer a virtual platform meeting option. This allows clients to meet during breaks from work, around their children’s schedules and while juggling their other responsibilities without the added time of traveling to my office. It’s a time-saving option but still allows for the personal attention that clients need while navigating a difficult and stressful situation.”

Courtroom proceedings also became remote. This came with benefits to clients. “I definitely think that court proceedings have been much more efficient,” says Amy Smith, Esq., of Weinberg, Kaplan & Smith. “Previously, matters were generally listed on the court docket at either 9 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. and there could be many cases all listed for either of these time slots. Clients would have to pay for their attorneys, not only to drive to the courthouse, but then potentially have to wait several hours for their matter to be called. Once the courts open, I am hopeful that the courts will adopt a hybrid approach so that certain matters can still be conducted virtually.”

The pandemic’s impact on the economy certainly had rippling effects on divorces, from determining custody and parenting time, to dividing assets.

Andrew Rochester, Esq., of Morgenstern & Rochester, says the pandemic changed several things in regard to custody. Not only were there virtual hearings to adapt to, but parents had different definitions of strictness when following pandemic safety protocols.

“We saw parents fighting about who could keep the children safest and we saw some refuse to turn children over in the early months,” he says. “Another interesting problem was factoring in remote schooling, which meant parents now had to be home during the day, preventing them from going to work. We did see one parent give the other more parenting time if they had a better schedule to be home with the children.”

Rochester says this experience may bode well for more equal sharing of parenting time going forward. “If a parent had this extra time in the pandemic they may now want the court order to officially reflect a 50/50 custody arrangement. It would be harder for the residential parent to say the other shouldn’t have as much time if they’ve already been doing it during the pandemic. I expect an uptick in court cases involving increased parenting time,” he says. “It’s unclear how the court will handle the pandemic. The law says you have to show substantial changed circumstances in the best interest of the child in order to get a modification, but we don’t know if the court will account for the last 16 months or pretend it never happened.”

The fair distribution of assets and property has also been a challenge in the wake of the pandemic, says E. Antoinette Chiulli, attorney at law. “The pandemic has caused the appraisal of certain assets, such as businesses and real property, to become a serious concern during a divorce. During the pandemic, some marital homes and other real property have changed in value in excess of $50,000 within several months. Valuations of investments and retirement plans also varied greatly during the pandemic,” she says.

“The issue with valuations caused many couples to complete their divorce quickly and/or to delay the matter until values stabilized. It was important to discuss with clients the need for updated appraisals if they were stale. Another issue during the pandemic was determining accurate alimony and child support calculations with many individuals being furloughed or having temporary salary reductions. In general, the pandemic caused couples to either rush and/or delay the divorce and uncertainty ruled the day.”

Much about our daily lives will forever be changed, and no one can be sure when things will feel completely normal again, but in the area of family law, one thing is for sure: Attorneys in South Jersey have navigated the ups and downs expertly and will continue to adapt to best serve their clients during this sensitive time.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 2021).
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