With the current stay at home order and the Courts being closed, many people have questions about how to handle difficult family issues, whether pursuant to a standing family law order or concerning ongoing problems that have only been exacerbated by the current medical crisis. At DiPietro we are working diligently to provide guidance to our clients and families in need during these difficult times, and below are a number of the major issues that have been brought to our attention over the last few weeks.
As always, every case is unique and has its own facts and issues that impact how you should be handling any given situation. The law is never a one-size fits all issue, and you should always consult with an attorney whenever possible for your particular matter, but hopefully this will help provide some basic answers to whatever family law issues you are currently facing.
How Does the Court Closure Impact My Situation?
Pursuant to the judicial emergency issued by the Supreme Court of Virginia, all Virginia Courts are currently running in a limited fashion, but that doesn’t mean they are completely closed. For family law cases, the Court is still hearing emergency cases and protective orders. If you find yourself in danger or are afraid for your safety due to the behavior of any individual in your home, you should immediately seek assistance from the police or a protective order. These cases are still being heard.
If your situation doesn’t rise to the level of someone being placed in immediate danger, then your case probably does not rise to the level of an emergency for the Court to hear your matter, but the Court is still accepting pleadings for other matters. While filing a pleading might not provide the immediate relief people are seeking, filing can still be a major step to take for your case, especially in family law matters where the filing date can have a significant impact on the outcome of your case in matters of divorce, child support, and alimony. Consult with an attorney if you are facing any of these issues, and they can advise you as to whether filing immediately might be beneficial for your case.
I’m Having Issues in my Marriage that may Require Legal Intervention: What Steps Can I Take During this Crisis?
It is a sad truth that the current crisis has put many relationships under strain. Some people, who have already thought about divorce, have had this desire confirmed over the last few weeks. A surprising number of people have found out things about their spouses in the last few weeks that have significant impacted how they view their relationships and lead them to question whether they should seek a divorce. If you are one of these individuals, you are not alone.
If you have already decided on divorce as the necessary next step, speak to an attorney. As previously stated, your filing date may have a major impact on your case in the future, so filing now, even when the Courts are not hearing any cases immediately, might be a prudent step. This is especially true if you are filing for child support, spousal support, or have any claims for adultery, abuse, or desertion as the grounds for adultery.
Separation for Divorce: What Steps do I need to Take?
In Virginia, if you are not filing for divorce based on “fault” grounds, you and your spouse will need to be separated for one year before filing for divorce unless you don’t have children. If you have no children, you can file for divorce based on six months separation and having completed a separation agreement.
If you need to establish separation, but you and your spouse live together, you may be concerned about how to establish that separation. Luckily in Virginia, spouses can remain in the same household and still establish the necessary separation if they have otherwise separated their lives. Some methods of doing so include separate bedrooms, separate meals, and ending the sexual relationship. It is important to talk to an attorney before taking these steps to make sure you are not undertaking any steps that might lead the other party to claiming you have deserted the marriage, but in general if you have a relationship with your spouse that is no more intimate that what roommates might have (or co-parents who just happen to share a home) you can generally establish separation.
The court will eventually require at least one credible witness who can establish this separation, and it never hurts to start documenting the separation with your own evidence. Remaining in touch with friends and recording your separation can be a significant boon in the future for cases such as these. Facetime and other video-chat programs can be especially useful for this purpose.
If you think you and your spouse might be able to resolve the major issues of the divorce, it is never too late to begin outlining a settlement agreement. These agreements don’t need Court approval to be enforceable, and can save a great deal of time, money, and stress later when it comes time to formalize your separation.
Custody and Social Distancing:
The current orders issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia make specific allowances for travel and meetings to care for a family member. If you have a custody order in place that provides the other parent with visitation, then chances are better than good that you are going to be expected to abide by that order unless there are severe mitigating circumstances. If you believe you have circumstances like that, such as one parent acting in a manner that puts your child or you at substantial risk during these trying times, or your child has a medical condition that makes them particularly at risk for infection, speak to an attorney to see if you might qualify for a temporary amendment to your custody order, either through an emergency motion or by agreement, and how the particular actions of opposing counsel might impact future custody and visitation arrangements.
I’ve Lost Work due to COVID 19: How Does this Impact my Child Support/Alimony Payments?
The Court has not issued much guidance on this question sadly, but any court ordered payments and obligations are supposed to continue even if you are facing economic hardship. Child support especially is supposed to be a priority over other financial obligations, but the current fiscal reality might make that difficult. You may qualify for a Motion to Modify, depending on how severely you have been impacted by the crisis, and when you file that motion will be extremely important to the outcome of your case. Speak to an attorney to see what steps specifically you can take to protect yourself concerning your own finances and situation.