April 28, 2020 Practice Points

COVID-19 and Family Law: Dealing with the Unexpected

This is a time for us to work together and cooperate with one another.

By Helen Casale

I have been practicing family law exclusively for exactly 25 years. Every so often, I think I have seen everything. Then another client comes in and tells me an unbelievable story. It happens all the time. Clients seem to get themselves into the strangest predicaments and love to tell us all about it. Over the years I have learned so many things, like how you can make a great deal of money starting businesses I never even knew existed and the strange way people invest their money or, in some cases, hide their money, including stashing it in paper bags hidden in the basement.

I have counseled clients through very difficult times: recessions, bear markets, bull markets, real estate booms, and the “dot-com” era. In each and every instance, these changes seem to make people more prone to thinking about divorce or separation. Either they are making so much money that now it’s time to separate or they are losing so much money that now it’s time to separate.

In my career, I have seen hurricanes, snowstorms, blizzards, and floods disrupt our lives and impact cases and court schedules. 9/11 is certainly a day no one will ever forget; it changed the tide of my practice in many ways. Clients lost jobs, spouses lost 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 are like nothing I have ever experienced. Things have come to a screeching halt. Offices are closed. Courts are closed. People are required to “shelter-in-place.” Imagine what this does to the psyche of someone going through a divorce. Even in “normal” times, clients have questions we cannot answer, but now more than ever, I am stuck. Of the many questions my clients are asking, 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 finally worked up the courage to separate from him and file that divorce complaint?

Imagine how scary it is for children already caught in the middle of their parents’ battle. Their lives were already totally disrupted by their parents’ fighting and physical separating. They were maybe just getting used to this “new normal” of going back and forth between homes. Now they have no school, they have to be taught online, and they aren’t sure which parent should be doing what.

“Shelter-in-place” is frightening enough, but imagine trying to navigate your custody schedule now that no one is allowed outside. There have been so many contradicting statements made by mayors, governors, and the president that 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 is whether the parent still has to exercise the custody schedule?

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 children of their new partner or 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 healthcare 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 am able to provide is clients 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 all of a sudden 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 the majority of clients realize and understand that while differences are going to be had, 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, for the sake of their elderly parents or grandparents, for the sake of their community, and for the sake of all 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 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a former chair of the Family Law Committee, and a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

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