March 27, 2020 Section of Litigation

Coronavirus and Family Lawyers: What We Can and Can't Do When Clients Ask for Advice During the Crisis

Blizzards, bear markets—even 9/11: Nothing has been quite like COVID-19 for families and family law practitioners. But the advice we can give our clients should be as simple as ever.

By Helen Casale
Most divorcing or separated parents understand this is a time for us all to come together and put differences aside.

Most divorcing or separated parents understand this is a time for us all to come together and put differences aside.

Westend 61 / Getty Images

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I have been practicing exclusively family law for exactly 25 years. Every so often I say I thought I have seen everything, when another client comes in and tells me a story that is unbelievable. It happens all the time. Clients seem to get themselves into the strangest predicaments and love to tell us about it. I have learned so many things over the years. I have learned that you can make a great deal of money starting businesses that I never even knew existed. I have learned that some people work so hard all their lives to realize hardly anything as they near retirement. I have learned the strange way people invest their money or in some cases hide their money, including stashing it in paper bags hidden in the basement.

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I have also counseled clients through very difficult times—recessions, bear markets, bull markets, real estate booms, and the dotcom era. In every instance, these changes seem to make people more prone to wanting to separate. They are making so much money that it is now time to separate. They are losing money every day so it must be time to separate. The real estate market is tanking so it must be time to file that divorce. Their stocks are up so now it must be time to make that move.

I have also counseled many clients through many tragedies. In my career, I have seen hurricanes disrupt our lives. Snowstorms, blizzards, and floods have all impacted my cases and court schedulings. The 9/11 terrorist attack was certainly a day no one will ever forget and it changed the tide of my practice in many ways. Clients lost their jobs, spouses lost their partners, and travel with children would never be the same again.

But I have to say, the recent events of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic is like nothing I have ever experienced as a family lawyer. Things have come to a screeching halt. Offices are closed. Courts are closed. People are required to “stay in place.” Imagine what this does to the psyche of someone going through a divorce. Clients have questions, many questions that just cannot be answered. I mean, clients often have questions we cannot answer such as, “What are my chances of winning my custody case?” But now, more than ever, I am stuck. I cannot answer the one question everyone is asking, “When will things get better?”

This is scary for me, but imagine how it feels for the client who is still living with her abusive husband and was finally getting the nerve to separate and file that divorce complaint? Imagine how scary it is for the children who are already caught in the middle of their parents’ battle. Their lives were already totally disrupted by a change in their world with their parents fighting and physically separating. They were maybe just getting used to this “new normal” of going back and forth between homes. Now they have no school. They must be taught online and they aren’t sure which parent should be doing what.

“Shelter in place” is frightening enough let alone trying to navigate how your custody schedule is going to work now that no one is allowed outside. There have been so many contradicting statements made by mayors, governors, and the president. No one knows who to believe or what to do. Normally, clients will contact their family law attorney to find out how to manage their custody issue. I have received many calls asking me what this all means. The most common question I have received is whether the parent still has to exercise the custody schedule. Do their children still need to be transported back and forth?

It is not an easy answer. Yes, it can be stated that a custody exchange is a “family essential” task and should be permitted to occur. But what happens when the other parent is exposed to other people such as step-siblings, children of their new partner, or if they live with elderly parents? Is it still a good idea to do that exchange?

And what about those parents that continue to work on the front lines? They are truck drivers or health care workers putting their lives at risk every day. Should they continue to expose their children? Should the other parent “withhold” the child as a result?

There are no good answers. The only answer I can provide is that the client should be communicating and talking it through with the other parent. This is a time for us to work together and cooperate with one another.

Really? This is the advice? If parents could do this then do you think they would need a family law attorney? The reality is that some parents just cannot communicate. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that they can suddenly do it in a time of crisis and it is ludicrous for this to be my only piece of advice.

But you know what? This is really all I can say and surprisingly, in these terribly unsettling times, these parents are making it work. No, not everyone; but most clients realize and understand that differences are going to be had but this is a time for us all to come together and put those differences aside. They are doing it for the sake of their children, the sake of their elderly parents or grandparents, for the sake of their community, and for all of humanity.

Until, of course, the courts open back up. Well, then it is just business as usual.

Hang in there everybody. We can do this. Oh, and, wash your hands.
 

Helen Casale is a shareholder with Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

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