The breakup of a family is trying under normal circumstances. But, these are no ordinary times. In an era of Stay at Home orders, social distancing and business shutdowns, child custody, support orders and property division are taking on added complexity. The Courier spoke with two prominent local family lawyers about the unique issues wrought by COVID-19.
Initial Custody Conflicts
“When the Stay at Home orders first took effect, several of our clients encountered disagreements about what rules should be in place in the children’s respective homes. Certain clients wanted to change the existing custody arrangements, including to have longer (or shorter) custodial periods and include new orders that detailed what should take place in the other parent’s home regarding safety,” said Kristina Royce, a partner and co-chair of the Matrimonial and Family Law Practice Group of Blank Rome in Century City.
Clients who may be tempted to rush to court face a major hurdle, however. The Los Angeles Superior Court is closed for most family law matters other than domestic violence cases. That means everyone must comply with current orders, unless they agree to go before a private judge. The use of private (usually retired from the bench) judges is commonplace in family law matters. While costly, it’s a much more expedited means to resolve issues that could take months for a court hearing.
“Private judges are a great tool for many people. They function the same as judges on the bench in the courthouse and can make orders. That is especially important at times like these. I’ve recently had cases where private judges ordered the children to wear masks during custodial exchanges between parents, or insisted that temperatures be taken, and that the Safer at Home rules be followed to keep everyone as healthy as possible,” said Samantha F. Spector, the founder of Spector Law, a Century City based firm specializing in high-stakes family law disputes.
Both Spector and Royce have encountered impatient clients, frustrated with their existing custody orders. One client wanted a private judge to order that a spouse who had traveled be quarantined for two weeks and tested before seeing the kids. (The judge denied the request.) In another case, a client took the children to be with family during this uncertain time. She went not knowing or understanding how long the crisis would last. (Local schools were only on a two-week shutdown at that point.) Six weeks later, the woman is hesitant to get back on a plane. And, her former spouse is upset that he hasn’t seen the kids.
“We explain to our clients that they have to demonstrate irreparable harm to the child or children before a custodial order can be changed, and the courts are not inclined to micromanage what takes place in the parent’s respective homes. Courts are handling only essential cases at the present time and are not scheduled to reopen until late June 2020,” said Royce.
She and Spector both agree that custody disputes have calmed down, as the state marks its seventh week under Stay at Home orders. Many families are finding routines that they can live with.
“This may be our way of life for one or, even, two years. People understand that, and so they are looking for new, creative solutions to resolve family and custody issues,” said Spector.
Property division and support orders are another matter.
Even the affluent are feeling the effects of an economy in freefall. Furloughs, terminations and drops in business are changing the balance sheets that many support orders were based on.
“COVID-19 has been a financial nightmare for so many Americans, rich, poor and everywhere in between. Obviously, that means a lot of modifications to support orders are going to be needed,” said Spector.
She cautions, however, that some may try to use the pandemic as an excuse to justify bad behavior, such as withholding financial support.
Finances are definitely an issue right now, said Royce.
“I represent clients in various economic fields, many of whom are facing financial challenges, including in the automobile industry, real estate developers and investors, doctors, attorneys and people in the entertainment industry. Changes in income affects support, since support is an income driven calculation. We face difficulties, particularly with the uncertainly of the court system, in how we will handle the modification of support calculations in the months to come,” said Royce. Deal-making is the order of the day, especially when court orders could be a long time in coming.
“Courts have been closed since March 14 and are expected to open on June 22. We do not know what the calendaring will look like. We presume that priority will be given to restraining orders and custody matters, and then financial. We do not know when matters will be scheduled, including those that were previously on calendar from March 14 through June 22 and now need to be rescheduled. If the parties are able to resolve the issue without going to Court, they will be far better off,” said Royce.
For the matters still far from settlement, a big sticking point is often real estate.
“Houses are usually the parties’ biggest asset. I represent lots of real estate investors who don’t want to sell now. The parties may say to each other, ‘let’s wait it out.’ So, we’re dealing with co-ownership of assets more than we might have before,” said Royce.
Though uncertainly still lies ahead, the pandemic may yet bring about some positive changes in the realm of family law. For one thing, video meetings and networking may eliminate costly courthouse commutes. (The Los Angeles Superior Court is also introducing enhanced video appearance technology.) Clients are getting used to working things out in the virtual realm, with co-parenting counseling via Zoom the new normal.
With summer approaching, however, child custody matters may heat up again. Traditional summer camps may not open, bringing more uncertainty into the family dynamic.
“With life this unsettled, everyone wants as much certainly as their lives as possible. This crisis is putting a strain on many relationships, and we have received calls inquiring about divorce. I have encouraged them to not do anything for now, from a reactive standpoint, and to instead see whether time helps,” said Royce.
Spector sees the pandemic as a force that may very well drive people apart or bring them together.
“People ask me if I’ve seen an uptick in divorce cases. Unfortunately, we live in a time and a place where divorce is pretty much evergreen. People file all yearround, and I haven’t really seen an increase during this time,” she said. What she has seen is an increase
in clients needing reassurance. “We’re all human. We’re all connected. We live in a moment where people want things done, preferably, yesterday. Our job is to help them by being a source of strength and smart counsel. But, yes, people are really struggling out there. They are calling me a lot, and my phone keeps ringing late into the night,” said Spector.
But, not everyone is going through a difficult time because of divorce.
“I have clients who have devoted a year of their life planning a wedding, which included working with me on their prenuptial agreements. Well, now those weddings have been delayed, which is so unfortunate for them. It does not matter how much social distancing you do: COVID-19 ends up affecting everything and everyone,” said Spector.