EP 217: Divorce, Custody & Support Tips during COVID-19

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In this episode, I want to do a more timely addition of the Divorce and Your Money episode. As you know, clearly if you’re listening to this that there is a big virus going around and businesses are closed. Courts are closed to most extent. And a lot has changed in the span of just a few weeks. And depending upon where you are, the severity has changed quite a bit. But, many life-altering changes, and I wanted to discuss its impact on the divorce process and some things that you may want to consider during the coronavirus epidemic, or pandemic I should say. There are some helpful tips in here and just a hodgepodge of ideas I wanted to go through and some frequently asked questions and thoughts as you consider everything that’s going on.

There’s a few big things that have happened all at the same time. First, of course, is the virus. The second is the employment situation has changed. As I record this, over 3 million people have reported that they have filed for unemployment, and that number will go up, I’m sure, over the coming weeks. Also, the stock market is down quite a bit, and a lot of people are in much tougher situations than they found themselves just a month ago when … Well, you still have the divorce part, but at least the economy was good, market was up, and everything else. So I want to give you some things to consider and things that you can do.

The first thing is that across the country and just about every attorney I’ve talked to in every state I’ve talked to, court’s closed. Now, they’re not closed, closed for absolutely everything because the legal system is very important. But for anything that’s not essential, the court is likely closed. So what does that mean for you? Well, it means for many things you cannot go get them resolved. So if you have a session in front of a judge that’s not immediately urgent or an emergency, it will likely be delayed for several months. And unfortunately, because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of delays happening at the same time, things are going to take a lot longer once we start to reestablish some form of normalcy.

Now, if you have an emergency order for some reason, and you will have to have an attorney to help you with this, at least I recommend one, emergency orders, almost universally, are still going through in courts across the country. But it has to be a true emergency for a court to want to hear it and for you to get a resolution on that particular issue that may be occurring, so there’s something to that point.

Now, if you want to resolve your situation, your divorce case, and court is not available at the moment, what are your options? Well, if you are in a position to mediate or negotiate a settlement, every attorney I know is still working. These are all small businesses for the most part. Most family law firms are small businesses. They still are working the same way they would. Now, of course everyone is remote. I’ve always been remote. So for better, for worse, this hasn’t changed a drop of my day-to-day life. But attorneys are working remote, and so you can still work towards negotiating a settlement as if nothing mattered. Now, will you be able to file the final paperwork? Probably not. Or at least it may get delayed until you get the final sign-off, but everything is still possible to make progress in terms of a divorce case or issues you are facing.

Now, if you have to have a court date for something and that would be essential to your process, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But at least in terms of making progress, if you’re willing to do that, and your spouse is willing to do that, and the attorneys are willing to do that, you can still resolve. I still have plenty of people that I know that I’m working with who are making progress like they would normally, even though the court itself is closed, and that is an option available to you.

Another thing that’s available to you is that if you wanted to do mediation. Now, the traditional mediation when you are in a courtroom is … Or sorry, a conference room I should say, is not happening, where you get you, your attorney, your spouse, your spouse’s attorney, and a neutral mediator in a courtroom is not happening. However, believe it or not, just a few weeks ago, I had done some episodes on virtual mediation services. So it was actually one of the most recent episodes that came out and with Susan Guthrie. She’s a virtual mediator. And there are lots of virtual mediation options that are popping up over the last few weeks given the change in circumstances and situations. So if you’re in the mediation process, well, a lot of times that’s happening via video conference now where it would’ve happened in person before. So long as everyone agrees to it and agrees to move forward that way, that is possible.

Now, where are people having a lot of extra complications in this process? Well, something that’s just obvious is a lot of people are now stuck at home all day with their spouses. That may be you. And that can present a host of issues. It was one thing when you might see your spouse for an hour in the evening and you could get along relatively civilly for that hour in the evening, but now you are together 24/7, 365, or at least that’s what it feels like. And whatever was going on is being accelerated, good and bad. But whatever was happening could be worse.

So just my tip during that is, I know everyone’s situation is different, but to the extent that you can be civil, or have your own space, or be flexible, please try and do that. Not accelerate things. I’ve heard an increasing number … And I don’t have data on this point, but I’ve heard an increasing number of domestic violence issues, of child abuse issues, of lots of additional stressors just given everything going on, and I don’t want that to happen to you. So if you have any hope of compassion left to deal with your spouse even though you’re in the process of divorce, try and make that work, particularly when you are forced under the same roof.

Another consideration is that custody is a very complicated issue at the moment. A lot of you may be living under different roofs from your spouse and they’re going through this process and you’ve been figuring out different custody arrangements and parenting schedules. Well, if you had a temporary schedule in place or you’d been working on something in an informal basis, I would say try and be a little bit more flexible with what’s going on.

Now, there’s some weird issues coming up as it comes to custody and parenting time. School is out, or school is being done virtually, or some hybrid of that that may be causing some issues depending upon who is the parent, what resources they have, what set up they have, and that may be causing some issues. So you need to be documenting these issues. I would say first, figure out if you can work them out between the two of you somewhat civilly before getting attorneys involved because it may not happen in the pace that you want it to happen.

The other thing that is happening is sometimes one parent is being more diligent about health mandates than the other parent. So I’ve heard stories already of where one parent is bringing a bunch of people over to the house with the kid present when they’re supposed to be staying at home or avoiding gatherings, etc. And because of that, you might be worried about your kid’s health and safety and increasing their increasing probability of catching the virus, or having complications from it, or just being around people who might be spreading the transmission of the virus. Well, that’s something that you should not only document, but that is a good time to contact an attorney immediately to see what potential options are.

The smart attorneys that I know that I work closely with, they are already thinking about potential options for this scenario and helping clients. I know some attorneys haven’t thought about it one drop. But if you get a good attorney, and I’ll be doing some episodes on attorneys in the near future, a good attorney will certainly be able to help you navigate and come up with some creative options during this time when it comes to custody, handoffs, parenting time, etc, given that we are in an unprecedented scenario at the moment.

Another area I want to cover is support, child support, spousal support. Things could be changing for you. Just a month ago when I recorded this or when we were recording episodes, and if you’re just thinking about life a month ago at the end of February, we had the lowest unemployment rate ever. And a month later passes and we now have the highest unemployment number, at least people out of a job, ever recorded by a big magnitude all in the span of about 30 or 45 days. What that means is that you or your spouse could very well be in a scenario where income-based support, it could be child support, could be spousal support, could be temporary, could be whatever, all of a sudden that is no longer financially feasible for you.

Now, there’s a lot of things going on government-wise, economy-wise, just a lot of different moving parts. And so the question is, what happens with those orders that may no longer be based on financial realities? Well, there’s a lot of things to think of. Also, some people were negotiating. I’ve talked to several people in the last week or two who were in the process of negotiating settlements and those settlements, all of a sudden, we had to change the strategy due to what was on the table and all of a sudden potentials for job losses or people who were out of the workforce, etc. That all of a sudden changed our strategy from a financial perspective in terms of what the best options were.

Here’s the point, is that if you have an existing order, you should continue the status quo of that order. So if you’re receiving payments, you should hopefully continue receiving that same amount that has been agreed to. If you’re the one making payments, you should continue to make those payments that have been agreed to for the foreseeable future, assuming that they agreed to by the court in some form or fashion. If your job is the same, too … I know some people who haven’t been affected yet by the job issue. If your job’s the same, your salary’s the same, definitely don’t do anything. But if you are in a position where someone’s lost a job or on reduced hours, at least for the short term that plan should be to keep going under the current amount.

Now, there are things that you can do, particularly if you’re the payer of support, is you can file to have that support reduced, especially given a job loss or unemployment for reduction in hours. And that has to go through the court process so it may take a few months, in which case the default recommendation is to keep things going for a few months. Then when that process works itself out, then you would pay the reduced amount. And if you’re the person receiving support, I would also assume that the person who’s the payer, be it spousal or child support, is going to be asking or looking for reduction in the near future and so you need to plan accordingly.

But I would say this, I would be very cautious. Now, I know some people are in a situation where they have to conserve every dollar that they can, otherwise they’re not going to be able to make the mortgage payment, or the rent payment, or eat over the coming months. And if that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do. But to the extent that you can continue to make some form of spousal support or child support payment, particularly in the short term, you should do that, especially if it is ordered. But, everyone needs to be aware that things will likely be changing and people will have less in terms of money in the near future.

The other thing to remember is this is an unprecedented situation. It just is. I was talking to someone who was getting … Well, everyone I talked to just about is going through the divorce process, and we were talking about what should you really be focused on during this process. And I said, “Hey, look, there’s a lot that’s going to be happening over the coming weeks and months. We don’t know how it’s going to play out. The economy’s down. A lot of things are down. But remember this, is basically all of finances, even in a new reality, are you need to have your income be more than your expenses. Simple as that. Your income more your expenses, and then you need to have money saved for a rainy day.” Well, now is definitely a rainy day.

I talk to lots of people in the past. And if you’ve listened to this podcast, I always say try and hold on to your cash. I’m very much biased, even in the best of times, that you need to hold onto your cash and stay as liquid as you can whenever you have that option because you never know when a rainy day is coming. And unfortunately right now is that rainy day.

So what you need to be thinking about is your lifestyle. You might need to be making adjustments in terms of what’s relevant, what’s not, and conserve every dollar you can. I would avoid paying down debt at the moment. I would hold on to your cash. You can refinance debt, but hold on to as much cash as you can in the immediate term because we don’t know how bad things are going to get.

It depends on where you are in the country. I travel a lot so I get to … so I know people all over and I’m checking in. All over the world as well. I mean, I have friends in over 80 countries, and it’s a different issue depending upon where you are in the country and in the world. And if you’re in the East Coast, or West Coast, or middle of the country, it doesn’t really matter. Things are happening at different rates and different paces. The point is you need to be prepared for everything that is happening and even if you have to start making some immediate cuts. You should be doing those and thinking about what is going on in the near future.

But, there’s a lot of things that are happening. I’ll keep you updated as I have new information and I hear information from attorneys. I know some good attorneys who are putting out some information, particularly in regards to custody because that’s the biggest thing that’s happening right now. But, we don’t know what the extent of things is going to be. We do know the world is moving online very rapidly and trying to keep up with as much as we can given the changing circumstances, but prepare for this to go on for several months.

And things are going to be delayed. It’s going to take a long time to catch back up when the time comes, and so you need to be making those financial moves and preparations now so that you’re not caught flat-footed later when some of these scenarios that we might have been thinking about hypothetically are actually here and are real and could cause some very substantial stress in your life.

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