Will Family Court “Temporary” Coronavirus Protocols Become the “New Normal”?

The past twelve months have caused all of us to adjust our way of life. For many of us, our days now bear little to no similarity to our days this time last year.  Attorneys have had to change the way that we communicate with our clients, appear in Court, and handle our workloads. Divorce attorneys in particular have had to deal with more than most; we had to develop new systems and methods to handle our family law cases when a slew of new issues emerged due to coronavirus: What does parenting time look like during a pandemic? How can someone pay alimony when their business is closed due to executive orders?  When is a pandemic (and any related economic downturn) considered temporary, and when is it considered a change in circumstance that would warrant a modification of a support obligation?

One thing that became apparent early on is that litigating through the Courts has become much more difficult since the pandemic has started.

Initially, family law attorneys did not even have a way to file documents electronically with the Courts. This was luckily resolved early on (hello JEDS!). With most of the court staff working remotely, the Court had to make the same adjustments and transitions that we did as practitioners; hearings are being held largely via ZOOM or other video conferencing platform, cases are being managed, and trials are sparse. It is sometimes challenging to catch the right person on the phone, and technology/internet bandwidth limitations have impacted us all.  Even though we’ve been working remotely for the better part of the year, new issues are cropping up every day that we haven’t yet faced. Like all of us, litigating through the courts is a work in progress.

What does that mean for the family law practitioner?

We have been relying more and more on our conciliation skill set. Once it became apparent that things going through the Court system were going to be delayed, family law attorneys made herculean efforts to resolve cases out of court. 4-way settlement conferences abound. Mediations have been frequent and productive via ZOOM. Perhaps one of the bright spots of going fully virtual is that it has opened us up to using mediators and arbitrators across the entire state, as opposed to only limiting ourselves to local practitioners. And most of all, collaborative divorce is becoming more and more attractive to parties and attorneys alike.

What does that mean for a litigant in the family court?

The spread of coronavirus is still rampant in New Jersey, and precautions and protocols that were put in place almost a year ago will likely be in place for the foreseeable future. If you have children, anticipate having to develop two to three different parenting time plans – one during fully virtual schooling, one for hybrid, and one for post-pandemic. Be prepared to be flexible when determining or imputing incomes for purposes of support – as many jobs and industries are still being negatively affected.  Anticipate increased stress – going through a divorce isn’t a walk in the park on a good day, but with the added pressures of homeschooling, lack of childcare, and financial instability – tensions will be at an all-time high. Expect delays from the Court, as they continue to have staff and judges working part-time in Court and part-time from home. Most of all, if time and resources permit, make sure that you are adequately prepared for divorce before you file.

If you chose to divorce, options such as alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or complementary dispute resolution (CDR) are available. While you are getting ready to file your Complaint for Divorce, you must first review and sign a Certification which acknowledges that you have read the Court’s literature on different types of ADR/CDR and still wish to proceed with traditional litigation. Instead of skimming the descriptions of ADR/CDR as a box to check off on your road to filing a Complaint, seriously consider whether mediation, arbitration, or collaborative divorce may be right for you. These alternatives can streamline the process, while saving you time and money.

Another blog post about collaborative divorce during the pandemic will be posted next. Remember to check back to learn more about collaborative divorce.

On a final note, there’s no way of knowing right now which coronavirus protocols will continue post-pandemic. Personally, video-conferencing has opened up amazing opportunities to work with clients, attorneys, and mediators outside of our traditional geographic area of practice – and I hope to continue using it long after coronavirus is not an issue. If you are debating your options, do not hesitate to contact me directly at amackaronis@hoaglandlongo.com or at 732-545-4717 to schedule a free initial consultation.