Moving Your Divorce Case Along When Courts Are Closed: 5 Steps You Can Take No Matter Where You Are in the Process

move divorce along during covid-19
Christy Zlatkus, Esq.

By Christy Zlatkus, Esq. | Jun 1st, 2020

Let’s pretend for a second that there is a perfect couple really sticking the landing on this whole quarantine business. 

They are taking telework breaks for (ahem) afternoon delights, holding each other close as they quake with laughter from the Tiger King, and for the past twelve weeks have managed to consume under the daily recommended guidelines for carbohydrates. If they have kids, those precious angels are nailing distance learning, and have not torn the house to shreds and/or congealed into quasi-depressed sofa tumors entranced by glowing screens. 

Good for them. 

But let’s be real. This bizarre hiatus from life as we knew it is disorienting, a bit scary, and straight up hard. 

And if all of the changes and the abundance of “quality time” with your family has brought you clarity that your marriage is untenable, that’s ok. It sucks, but it’s ok. Because you really, truly can start or continue with the divorce process, even while the Courts are closed. Here’s how: 

If you already have a Court case in the works: 

1. Respond to your lawyer’s calls and emails!

Just because the world has ground to a halt doesn’t mean your attorney has. Most of us are working, remotely or otherwise, and we want to help keep your case rolling. If your attorney calls or emails, try to get back to them, even if you are juggling telework and parenting/teaching/deargodcanschoolspleasereopen-ing. The cost of trying to track you down to get responses to calls and emails absolutely can impact your legal bill. Help us help you!

2. Review any child support calculations that were proposed prior to the COVID crisis

Child support, in most states, is based on a calculation of each parent’s income, and the amount of time the children spend with each parent. If your income, or your spouse’s income, has gone down the toilet because of the COVID crisis, this may impact any calculations you’ve already agreed to.

The other big double-check to do on your child support calculations is work-related child care. If you are an essential worker or are expected to be back in the office regardless of school closures, you may now have to pay a private nanny for the 12 hours that you had school and aftercare in place— meaning you’re spending upwards of $2,000 for work-related childcare, vs. a few hundred dollars.

Depending on the state you live in, these circumstances may be deemed temporary by a Court. While we hate to suggest adding another expense during this scarily uncertain time, checking in with an attorney on how to navigate these big changes to your child support calculation could save you costly mistakes long term. 

3. Pull together your discovery responses

“Discovery” is the legal term for the process of sharing information with your opposing party (read: your soon-to-be-ex). This information, in most states, comes in the form of “Requests for Production of Documents” and “Interrogatories.” Production of documents is, well, asking you to produce documents and hand them over to your ex. This generally includes bank statements, W2s, and the like, but can also include text messages with friends about the particulars of a marital conflict and social media messages. Interrogatories are formal, written questions that you are compelled to answer. 

If this sounds cumbersome just reading the definitions, we feel you. Answering discovery requests is miserable. But ignoring these requests can be more miserable, because it can result in nasty and expensive sanctions from the Court. Even though some Courts are still closed, don’t risk getting into trouble once things reopen by dragging your feet now.

4. Rework any Court required financial forms if you’ve lost your job

Most states require that divorcing parties provide a detailed financial form to the Court. If your income has changed or your expenses have changed, you need to flag this in your form. If your child care costs have gone up, this may need to get changed as well. Go back through your financial form and make sure the numbers still hold true. 

5. Consult with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst

If all of the above advice sounds overwhelmingly complicated, it’s because this is overwhelmingly complicated areas of law, combined with an absolutely unprecedented crisis. You do not have to figure this out on your own! There is an entire profession of financial experts— called Certified Divorce Financial Analysts—- that have in depth training to help you through this. 

Find one. Have a consultation. Get guidance. Don’t try to go this part alone. 

Ask your attorney for a referral, or visit the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts to find one in your area if you’re not working with an attorney. 

If you haven’t started divorce proceedings but know that your marriage is kaput: 

1. Try to stay calm

Yes, Courts are closed, but you don’t have to stay in this marriage. You are going to get out, and there will come a day when you are not in lockdown with someone you can no longer stand. 

It’s ok. This will be over one day, and in the meantime there are steps you can take to get out. 

2. Talk to an attorney and get informed about your legal options

Even if your divorce is likely to be straightforward— no kids, no property, no huge disparity in income— getting an idea of your legal rights and the options available to you is always a good idea. If you were a brain surgeon, you’d never try to operate on yourself. 

Trying to tackle a legal proceeding without a clear idea of your legal rights and the process options available to you can lead to unintended mistakes that come with big price tags if you need a lawyer to fix them. 

Talking to a lawyer absolutely does not mean you have to hire one for the whole process. Having an initial consultation generally costs only a few hundred dollars (some attorneys even offer them for free) and can give you a wealth of information about the best path forward. 

3. Find a coach that’s a great fit.

Divorce coaches can save your sanity, save you time, and possibly even save you a ton of money. Coaches guide you through the emotional and logistical cluster-you-know-what that comes with divorce. Unlike a therapist, divorce coaches have specialized training in the divorce process, and can guide you step by step through many of the biggest conundrums that you are likely to face along the path to your new life. In addition, they can often save you money in attorney’s fees by answering general questions that don’t actually require an attorney’s legal guidance. 

4. Clarify your vision for your post-divorce life

Even if you have a great attorney and a great coach, the only person who knows what you want life to look like on the other side of divorce is you! So, use this time to get clear on what you want. Many of our clients use good ol’ Pinterest to put together boards of what they want their new apartments to look like or the kind of car they want to get after they trade in the one they shared with their ex. 

If you don’t have kids, maybe you want to move abroad after the lockdown. Maybe you want to pivot in your career, and go back to grad school, or completely revamp your look and go blond (Our firm’s divorce coach is guilty of this. Pro tip: See a professional after the lockdown and don’t bleach your hair at home). 

Your new life is yours, you don’t have to explain your choices or get buy-in beyond decisions about your children’s well-being. Use this time before Courts reopen to really dream big about what you want your life to look like. Get clear, and then go for it!

5. Get your financial information organized

Gather up your W2s for the past 3 to 5 years. Round up your bank statements, mortgage statements, car notes, and credit card statements. It’s a big job, and doing it now before you commence any formal legal proceedings can save you lots of time in the future once things get moving again in Court. 

Steps to take regardless of where you are in the process: 

1. Consider virtual mediation

Courts are closed, but that doesn’t have to mean you can’t get a formal deal pulled together with your soon-to-be-ex. Mediators across the country have figured out how to use secure teleconference software that protects your privacy, so you can get going before Courts are back up and running. 

2. Do virtual footwork to start your post-divorce life

If you are going to have to get a new place to live, change your name, buy new dishes, or change your kid’s school, there are action steps and research you can do now via phone or internet. Research apartments, visit GetYourNameBack.com, peruse Amazon for new homegoods, call up your current school to get information about staying in boundary… so many things that don’t require you to leave the house or put on a mask! Let Google be your guide, and go wild doing research. 

3. Make a move

We can’t give input on the safety science regarding actually moving out of your current home into a new residence, but hundreds of moving companies across the country are still working, and there are good rental deals to be had in this bonkers real estate market. If moving into a new place is on your divorce to-do list, it may be possible to do it now.

4. Create a realistic short term vs. long term budget, if you or your spouse lost your jobs.

Budgeting for a post-divorce life is one of the most cumbersome parts of the process, because you are dealing with a lot of “what if” variables— What if the child support changes because we can’t agree on the amount of time with each parent? What if the house doesn’t sell for the asking price? What if I don’t get alimony? It’s financially complicated, and has a lot of emotions tied into it as well. 

Given that the world is changing at a very rapid pace, it may not make sense for your family’s circumstances to try to project a long term budget right now. Start by sketching out what your current state of play is: income today, expenses today, savings (or lack thereof) today. Then project the next three months, six if possible. This is your short-term budget.

Next, sit down and put together numbers of what you think is feasible—- actually, realistically feasible—- for the long term. What could you live on? What do you really need in your day to day to be happy and comfortable. Even if you end up getting a perfect settlement and walking away with everything you want, it’s good to have a bare bones bottom line so you can have a worst case scenario in mind if you or your spouse’s incomes change during the divorce process, or if your home sells for less than you are hoping for. Plan for the worst, hope (and fight for, if necessary) for the best. 

5. Consult a Realtor to explore timing for listing your marital home, if applicable

If you own a marital home that you will be selling, check in with a Realtor to get a sense of the real estate market in your area. If there have been big changes, it may influence when you and your spouse choose to list the marital home, or prompt considering if a buy-out is feasible if one of you wants to stay in the home. 

Going through or preparing to go through a divorce is overwhelming under the best of circumstances, and this crisis is obviously far from ideal for any major life change. But this really can be a productive time for creating a new life. Once Courts reopen you’ll be in a good position to put this strange time behind you and start living the life.

Christy Zlatkus, Esq.

Christy Zlatkus, Esq.


Christy A. Zlatkus launched Z Family Law, a boutique family law firm based in Rockville, Maryland.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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