People are calling the office in the midst of this coronavirus crisis to ask how they can get a separation or divorce with the problems we are facing now. Most courts are functioning on a limited basis, except for “essential” matters or emergencies, like orders of protection. Couples who are experiencing marital distress are now facing other crises: loss of a job or a collapsed small business, depleted bank accounts, stocks and retirement funds that have plummeted in value. For some people wanting to separate or divorce, they fear that the economic toll means they will never be able to afford a divorce.
One couple invested home equity loan funds in the stock market in November 2019, hoping to have enough money to fund the legal fees for their amicable divorce. By mid-March, their investment had shrunk by 40%, while they still owed 100% on the home equity loan.
Another couple realized that their planned separation for March wouldn’t work financially. The husband had lost his job, so he couldn’t afford to move out and rent an apartment while also paying child support.
Another couple, who put their house on the market on March 1, planned to separate and divorce as soon as it was sold. Then came the orders to shut down non-essential businesses. The real estate market is on hold: they don’t know when they will be able to sell or whether they will net any profits on the sale.
Here is some advice if you are separating or divorcing during the coronavirus quarantine.
1. Take advantage of all the financial assistance government benefits offer: from free school lunches to CARES Act aid programs. There are loans available to help small businesses stay afloat financially and mortgage relief programs that let you defer payments to the end of your loan period.
2. Make temporary living arrangements: if you cannot afford to move out, re-configure your living quarters so that you have some separation. Turn the basement or den into one spouse’s living quarters so you each have some personal space and privacy, even under one roof.
3. If you have lost your job or your income has decreased significantly, make an interim agreement for child support and/or maintenance so you pay less support. Agree to review the amount every 90 or 120 days for the next year. This will allow the support-paying parent to build up an income base before a final support agreement is made. Get the interim agreement signed as soon as possible. The court will not modify support payments after they are due.
4. If you are employed, suspend contributions to your retirement plans and lower your income tax withholding, so that you will have more income available to you now.
5. If the stalemate in the real estate market prevents a sale of your home right now, consider a new plan: one spouse stays in the home and you defer sale for three years, when there is a better chance that the real estate market will improve. Or, one spouse can use retirement assets to buy out the other spouse’s interest in the home
6. If you are already separated or divorced, work out custody access plans with your spouse or ex-spouse based on stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines. If you can keep up the current schedule safely, do so. Take into account everyone your children will have contact with at your home, your spouse’s home, and traveling between them. If one of you has contact with an elderly parent, consider transferring the children less frequently or not at all. Even if some guidelines are lifted, traveling unnecessarily could be a serious risk to your children’s (and your own) health. It’s unclear whether summer camps or pools will open at all this year, so modify your summer plans accordingly.
7. If you are quarantining with your spouse and children but have discussed or initiated a divorce, you’re probably feeling a lot of stress. Most attorneys, therapists, and financial counselors are not meeting anyone in person, but video conference calls are quickly becoming business as usual. If you can, create a schedule with your spouse, with on-duty and off-duty parenting times for each of you. It’s important to keep tension low in front of your children, so do things for yourself (walk, meditate, call a friend). Do your best to avoid triggering arguments with your spouse. Remind yourself that this won’t last forever.
8. If you or your spouse has lost a job, you may not be able to continue paying high legal fees. Some attorneys and therapists are recommending alternative dispute resolution processes like divorce mediation or collaborative divorce. Before you make a decision, do your research and make sure you choose the right process for you.
9. Even if your financial circumstances aren’t dire, your stock accounts, retirement funds and other investments have probably depreciated. You may need to redo your distribution of assets, spousal and/or child support and tax implications. Take a deep breath and wait a few months for your finances to stabilize before going ahead.
10. As hard as it may be, try to be patient. Most people getting divorced want it to be over as soon as possible, but it’s not feasible while the country is under COVID-19 lockdown. Try to make a sensible and affordable interim plan with your spouse to get through this period. You will be able to work on your separation or divorce in the future.
Coronavirus/COVID-19 will probably make your divorce take longer than it otherwise would have. With no court activity, in-person meetings impossible, the value of assets in flux, business valuations on hold (or moot, if your small business has folded), it’s inevitable. At the same time, people are grieving for lost loved ones and our collective nerves are frayed over the uncertain future.
Remember that your spouse is also worried about your children and scared about the future. Try to accept that the pace of your divorce is beyond your control, but it will happen.
Copyright 2020 by Kelly & Knaplund