The pandemic has been hard on millions of couples across the nation. Even families who often enjoy spending quality time together are feeling the strain. Extroverts are feeling isolated and alone. Introverts find that their sanctuary has been overrun by their partner or children. Few people are handing the major change in routine very well. When you throw a couple that is already struggling to get along into those same conditions, tensions are bound to rise. In the first few weeks of the pandemic divorce rates dropped significantly. However, as the quarantine drags on, family law attorneys are seeing the numbers for divorce during the COVID-19 Pandemic go back up. Beaumont lawyer Bruce Smith told Beaumont Enterprise he believes ‘a spike in divorce numbers is imminent the longer the shutdown continues’.
Experts say that money, lack of communication, and constant arguing are some of the top reasons why couples get divorced. With the stay at home order, 1.3 million Texans have filed for unemployment benefits so far this year as of mid-March. “Financial issues always cause big problems (in marriages). Both parents get laid off and you don’t have the money to pay their bills and live their normal lifestyle,” says Smith.
Lack of communication only further compounds the issue. While some couples see the quarantine as a sort of staycation, the change in routine has turned their lives upside down. Child rearing is a full time job all it’s own, and many parents are now trying to balance that with working from home. US schools have closed for the rest of the school year. So parents are not only balancing home and children, but the role of teacher as well. Lack of communication leaves partners feeling as though they are shouldering all the responsibilities on their own.
Before the quarantine, stressed partners could find comfort and perspective in time outside the home. They had family, friends, and routines to help them maintain their wellbeing. With many of those options cut off or limited, couples are struggling to settle conflict peaceably. Smith goes on to say that these unexpected changes paired with financial hardship “causes arguments and a lot of stress. That has been the cause of many of the divorces that we have seen.”
The pandemic is changing what divorce looks like for many couples. Usually the first step is physical separation. Meaning, one or both spouses move out of the marital home and begin living apart. However, financial hardship is making it harder for couples to move out, and move on.
Some couples are postponing their divorce. Getting a divorce can be a long and expensive process. Those that are choosing to wait may be doing so out of fear that they can’t afford to right now. Others are waiting out of concern for how the added stress would affect their children during an already difficult time. Some parents are choosing to move forward with the divorce but are waiting to move out. They feel the additional travel between homes for visitation poses an unnecessary risk to the children.
The legal processes to get divorced have also changed. Due to the stay at home orders, many courthouses have closed or are limiting services. This may delay or prolong the process for some couples. Others find it has streamlined their divorce. Due to the closures, many family law cases are being held via Zoom or video conferencing. Judge Randy Shelton of Jefferson County’s 249th District Court told Beaumont Enterprise that ‘while different, the transition has been smooth’. In fact in some cases the change has had a rather positive impact. Partners or parents who might not otherwise have attended the hearing are now ‘showing up’. “I think we are getting people to participate in the cases that we haven’t had in the past simply because they couldn’t get a ride to the courthouse,” Shelton said.
The pandemic has also had a profound impact on the ability of divorcing couples to co-parent. It is common for parents to have a difference of opinion on how to look after their children. When separating, these differences can become major sticking points that cause more tension. The health risks associated with the virus have only compounded the issue.
According to Beaumont Enterprise, Jefferson County family courts have had an influx of custody and child protective services related cases. “Some custodial parents are not allowing the other to have the children, and are saying it’s too dangerous to have the children out,” Smith said. “They think they have the right to change the court order and they can’t do that.” In fact, the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency order on March 13th stating that parents must keep to their child custody agreement. Failure to do so, even if you feel you have a compelling reason, could result in an ‘order to enforce’.
Shelton went on to tell Beaumont Enterprise that “We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of enforcement hearings. We’ve had to let the parents know that even though they have good intentions of protecting their children, they have to follow the order.”
Divorce is an expensive process. For this reason many couples may try to save money by self-representing their divorce case. While this is possible, divorce law is also complicated. When it comes to divorce settlements, custody agreements, and visitation rights, ignorance is not bliss.
Regardless of how you settled your divorce, your divorce decree and custody agreements are legally binding. Making changes means more filing fees and more time in court. If you did not hire an attorney during your divorce you may find you need one later on. Hiring the right attorney from the start can help prevent you from spending more time in court in the future.
Some couples may also try to save money by working through a single attorney. Do remember, however, that an attorney can only represent one half of the marriage. The attorney is legally obliged to protect the best interest of their client. In many instances, protecting the interests of their client is not in your own best interest. If your spouse has retained a lawyer, the best way to ensure you receive a fair settlement is to hire your own attorney.