Family Law: What Options are Available During the Covid-19 Shutdown?

Covid-19 with bacteria surrounding the text

If you had been considering a divorce or are currently co-parenting under a visitation agreement or child custody order, the announcements about COVID-19 shutdowns may leave you wondering what to do now. Can anything be done? Here are some practical suggestions for family law services that are still available in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Author’s Note: This is an evolving situation and the responses of governments, courts, and private businesses are changing every day. This article is accurate as of March 23, 2020. However, there may have been changes since that time. Contact a family law attorney to find out the latest developments.

COVID-19 and the Maryland Courts

The novel Coronavirus, COVID-19 has been sweeping the nation, causing businesses and government offices to shut down, and individuals to “shelter in place” or stay at home. However, some things, including time-sensitive legal issues, simply cannot wait.

On March 17, 2020, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued an Administrative Order severely restricting court operations due to the COVID-19 emergency. That order essentially shut down Maryland Courts for all but emergency proceedings. Each county and Baltimore City courts have been ordered to restrict personnel, and keep available only enough judges to deal with emergency matters. For family law, that includes:

  • Domestic violence protective orders
  • Temporary restraining orders
  • Extreme risk protective orders
  • “Family law emergencies”

The Administrative Order does not define family law emergencies. However, it is up to the administrative judge on duty to decide whether each petition:

  • Needs to be heard during the shutdown
  • Can be handled with remote electronic participation
  • Can be resolved without a hearing
  • Can be postponed until the emergency period is over

Also, the administrative order also “cross-designated” all incumbent judges to sit in any trial court in the state. That means if you file your emergency motion in your local county family division, a civil court judge from another part of the state could be the one to review your petition.

Also, on March 23, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan issued an Order closing many businesses and urging Marylanders to remain home. However, that Order explicitly allows lawyers and law firms to continue working as essential service providers.

Ultimately, this means that you can hire a lawyer right now to prepare your divorce petition, or get your child custody case started. However, even if you file your petition today, it may not be heard until after the emergency is past. The administrative judge reviewing your petition may address temporary concerns on an emergency basis, but unless the parties reach an agreement, the final order will have to wait until the shutdowns are over.

UPDATE: We have learned that certain counties in Maryland where the Courts accept electronic filings (all, but Montgomery, Prince George's, and Baltimore City) may be conducting scheduling conferences, settlement conferences, and uncontested divorce hearings via telephone and/or zoom meeting when both parties have lawyers. What this means is that if you and your spouse are eligible for an uncontested divorce, your case may be able to proceed even while stay-at-home orders remain in place.

Family Law Options During COVID-19 Shutdowns

The Maryland courts may be restricted, but many issues involving family law issues continue during, or are even created by, the Coronavirus emergency situation. Families are now struggling to answer questions that would traditionally be resolved by filing a motion with the court. The good news is that many alternative dispute resolution strategies are still available for co-parents and couples trying to ride out this period of uncertainty.

Collaborative Divorce Processes Assist Couples Through Separation

The collaborative law process is designed to minimize court involvement in your separation and divorce. While a judge still needs to enter a divorce judgment at the end, you and your spouse work with collaborative professionals to negotiate the terms of your separation up to that point.

Collaborative divorce is not cancelled. Your collaborative team can meet with you virtually. You can share documents electronically. You and your spouse can work with your collaborative team to iron out the details of separation, including ongoing support and visitation between parents. While you will not be legally divorced until a judge reviews your petition, your collaborative team can help you work out all the details needed for separation in a way that respects and responds to your family’s individualized needs, even in the midst of emergency shutdowns.

If you and your spouse reach an agreement through collaborative and you live in a Maryland county where the Court is accepting electronic filings, your case can be filed now. If your case is uncontested (divorce, custody, or child support modification) and you both have lawyers, the Court may be also able to hear your case now via telephone or zoom meeting, and without the need to wait until the Courts reopen.

Family Law Attorneys Help Couples Negotiate When Children Stay at Home

Some parties just need a little help working things out themselves. Parents faced with the uncharted waters of schools being closed, airline travel being cancelled, and orders encouraging families to stay at home may leave you looking for answers about the future, and for help working through your options. In these cases, a family law attorney can provide guidance to a parent or a spouse, and assist him or her with negotiations to modify existing parenting time orders, establish an access schedule, or work through other aspects of separation and divorce.

Virtual Mediation Helps Co-Parents Address COVID-19 Concerns

Mediation is another family law option during the COVID-19 shutdown. This is particularly useful for parents operating under a parenting plan or custody order with visitation requirements. Almost universally, these orders do not anticipate what to do in the case of a pandemic. That has left a lot of parents wondering whether they can or should comply with existing orders and risk exposing their children to the virus. This is especially true when:

  • One household has a confirmed case of coronavirus
  • Someone in either home is immunocompromised or quarantined
  • Children have special needs or underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable
  • One or both parents is an “essential worker” or medical professional facing an increased risk of exposure

There is no one good answer to how co-parents should react in these circumstances. However, mediation provides a strategy for resolving the issue in a way that addresses both parents’ needs and preferences while keeping the children’s best interests at the forefront. During the shutdown, a mediator can conduct a virtual mediation through electronic video conferencing, to help you find solutions during these difficult times. An attorney can still advise you; help prepare you for a virtual mediation; and even attend along with you, if necessary.

Emergency Motions in the Midst of Coronavirus Shutdowns

In family law, it is always best for families to try to resolve their disputes through negotiations, mediation, or collaborative processes. However, in some cases, resolution simply will not happen. Negotiations sometimes break down over crucial issues such as medical treatment of children with the coronavirus or unreasonable visitation denials based on social distancing directives. In other cases, being urged to “stay at home” puts domestic violence survivors in 24-7 contact with their abusers.

Those are the type of family law emergencies that may be considered by the Court under the current administrative order. In those emergency cases, you should speak to a family law attorney now to determine the best course of action. An attorney can prepare the appropriate motion(s) that establish your needs, the emergent nature of your request, and the relevant law. If your case is deemed an emergency, your lawyer can advocate on your behalf during this unprecedented emergency.

At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our divorce lawyers and mediators have a full range of family law solutions available to help you through the COVID-19 shutdowns. We are taking this matter seriously and observing all of the State and local recommendations for our clients and our staff. While we are not offering in-person client meetings, our office remains fully operational. We can help you consider your options and reach an agreement to resolve your co-parenting and divorce disputes while you wait for the courts to remove their restrictions. Our office offers in-person and virtual consultations and mediations using Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and telephone. Contact us today to schedule a mediation or a consultation with one of our attorneys.