For most divorcing spouses, whether the split is amicable or not, getting the divorce finalized and moving on with their lives is something they want done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has brought much of the world to a standstill over the past several months, and even as courthouses nationwide begin the slow transition back to hearing cases, in person or virtually, there are already significant backlogs that promise to bog down the system for weeks or months to come. This could mean significant delays for couples who want to get a divorce in the midst of COVID-19, even for those who began the process prior to the shutdown. Below we will discuss the link between COVID-19 and divorce, what to expect going forward, and how spouses can ensure that their divorce filings and applications for child custody and support proceed as quickly as possible.
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Divorce Hearings During COVID-19
To slow the spread of COVID-19, courthouses across the country shut down earlier this year, causing an unprecedented accumulation of cases waiting to be heard. These courts now face a significant challenge in attempting to manage the crushing backlog of cases while keeping up with new cases and maintaining compliance with strict social distancing measures. In Illinois, courts have slowly begun to reopen and resume court operations, including non-emergency hearings, but they are still operating on a limited basis and there are new policies and procedures in place to ensure compliance with guidelines intended to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Unfortunately, these measures will significantly reduce the speed at which cases are handled.
Married Couples Considering Divorce During COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has affected virtually every aspect of our lives, including our personal relationships, in ways that will affect us for years to come. During the quarantine period, many married couples found themselves faced with significantly increased levels of stress and uncertainty due to financial concerns, conflicts over children, a lack of exercise, and even boredom. Unable to escape one another, relieve their anxiety or take comfort in their usual routines, the stress combined with confinement and forced proximity caused increased tension in relationships that were already strained, pushing some relationships to a breaking point and forcing spouses to reevaluate their marriage.
“Pandemics, quarantine, the effects on life and society as we know it changing – that is about as uncertain as you can get,” says Stacy Lee, director of Couples Institute Counseling Services in California. “Couples are facing more challenges, they have less resources and a low bandwidth to manage all of this. Sadly, this is the perfect cocktail for increased divorce.” In China, we saw the number of divorce cases skyrocket in late March, as the government-enforced lockdown was lifted and couples who had been forced to quarantine together sought relief from troubled relationships. In the United States, the divorce rate is already shockingly high at nearly 50%, but it could soar even higher once divorce courts are fully reopened and ready to handle new cases.
Impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. Divorce Rate
Tracking the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on divorces in the U.S. is complicated, given the fact that divorce courts in America’s 3,143 counties are currently in varying stages of operation. In some counties, the courts have been closed for months, with electronic filings available only for emergencies, so it is nearly impossible to tell what is happening with regard to divorces right now. In other counties where courts are slowly beginning to reopen, there has been a push to first tackle the backlog of divorce cases that were already in process when the shutdown occurred. Even in counties where the courts have remained open, it is impossible to know for sure whether couples are filing for divorce because of COVID-19 or for other reasons entirely.
Temporary Alternatives to Divorce During COVID-19
Unfortunately, there are couples out there who intend to file for divorce, but are unable to do so right now, not only because of court closures and backlogs, but also for financial reasons related to COVID-19. And even when these couples decide the time is right to file for divorce, they will likely have a much longer wait than anticipated, as courts scramble to deal with pending cases and the logistical challenges stemming from COVID-19 health and safety measures. Some couples may be forced to find a temporary alternative to divorce to get their case moving in the right direction until they can have their day in court. And even when they do have their day “in court,” it will likely be virtually, as video conferencing has become standard procedure for hearings, depositions, divorces and other civil legal proceedings during COVID-19.
If you are having a difficult time with your divorce due to COVID-19, you may consider putting your divorce proceeding on hold for the time being, until the courts can catch up on their caseloads and things finally start getting back to normal, or as normal as they can be post-coronavirus. So long as you are not currently in a dangerous domestic abuse situation, the following are some possible alternatives to divorce you may consider until you can appear before a judge to finalize your divorce:
- Counseling – If there is any chance that you and your spouse may be able to save your relationship, you might consider marriage counseling. This is the most common option for couples considering divorce, as it can help open the lines of communication and address some of the underlying issues that made you and your spouse consider divorce in the first place.
- Mediation – In some cases, the best option for couples whose divorce has been delayed due to COVID-19 is to have a third party step in and deal with important issues like asset division, child support, visitation and spousal support. All of these issues can be mediated and negotiated without a pending divorce.
- Postnuptial Agreement – Depending on your situation, it may be in your best interest to have an attorney draw up a postnuptial agreement. A postnuptial agreement is a contract between two married people that lays out what will happen if and when the parties get a divorce.
- Moving out – For many couples who were already considering divorce, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Dealing with a failed marriage is challenging enough, but living with your soon-to-be-ex while your divorce is on hold is downright difficult. Sometimes moving out of the marital home is enough to give you some peace of mind until the divorce is final.
- Legal separation – In Illinois, you have the option of filing for legal separation without actually getting a divorce. You can even ask for child support and contribution to marital expenses in a legal separation. The only thing a legal separation can’t do is divide property, unless both spouses agree to it.
COVID-19 and the Risk of Domestic Violence
Another growing concern during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is the rising rate of domestic violence in the United States. In April 2020, a New York Times article highlighted how restrictions on movement aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 made violence in homes more frequent and severe, resulting in a surge of domestic abuse cases worldwide. “In times of crisis, whatever crisis that is, domestic violence goes up,” says Margo Lindauer, an associate clinical professor of law and the director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University in Boston. While the widespread stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders implemented in the earlier stages of the pandemic went a long way towards slowing the spread of COVID-19, the orders also forced domestic violence victims to remain in their homes with their abusers, unable to leave or get help.
In July 2020, the journal Pediatrics published a study underscoring the increased risk for domestic abuse and family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Although the public health benefits of social distancing, isolation, and quarantines are well-established and essential for reducing risk of transmitting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) […], there are also likely consequences for these practices when considering the impact of violence in the home,” the study authors wrote. “Reports of increased domestic violence after quarantine orders in China have revealed the interpersonal violence risks of isolation. Indeed, in a recent review of the psychological impact of quarantine published in The Lancet, the authors indicated increased anger, confusion, and post traumatic stress symptoms, as well as evidence of increases in substance use, in those subjected to quarantine.”
What to Expect in 2020
To recap, the following are some of the things we can expect to see in the latter half of 2020 and moving forward, post-coronavirus:
1. A spike in new divorce filings.
Some of these divorces would have happened anyway, coronavirus or not. In fact, it makes sense that couples who were already planning to start the divorce process early this year would have put that particular task off, at least temporarily, to deal with other more pressing issues during COVID-19, like homeschooling, job loss and health concerns. And in the latter half of 2020, as people begin to find some sort of balance again in their jobs and personal lives, it is likely that there will be a surge in divorce filings. However, there is also no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis put a substantial, unanticipated burden on relationships, forcing married couples to deal with severe economic and interpersonal problems they never expected to face. This, too, will play a role in the spike in the COVID-19 divorce rate.
2. A slower divorce process.
Divorce has always been a slow process. Although the law differs from state to state, six months is generally the shortest amount of time you can expect to have a divorce finalized, and the process often takes somewhere closer to 18 months. With non-emergency cases on the back burner for now as courts struggle to get up to speed on the cases that were filed before the coronavirus outbreak, the divorce process is expected to take even longer than normal. Depending on the details of the case and the state laws where the case is heard, couples filing for divorce can expect their case to take three to four times longer than usual.
3. Divorces involving domestic violence.
Domestic violence can impact any person at any time. There is no stereotypical abuser or victim, and even though most people assume domestic violence involves physical abuse between spouses, it doesn’t only affect married couples. In fact, the term domestic violence is used to describe any violent, aggressive or intimidating behavior that occurs within a domestic setting, including among family and household members. Domestic violence is a pervasive legal and social problem, one that was made significantly worse by the stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders implemented in the fight against COVID-19. The risk of intimate partner abuse and family violence is significantly higher when victims are trapped in the same space as their abusers, with nowhere to go, and this has been an unintended consequence of the safety measures put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. As we emerge from the COVID-19 quarantine and the restrictions on movement are lifted, it is likely that the percentage of divorce cases involving domestic violence will unfortunately be higher than normal.
Consult with a Reputable Divorce Lawyer Today
Just as we are seeing a worrisome increase in the rate of unemployment, depression, anxiety and domestic violence related to COVID-19, divorce attorneys are also seeing an increase in divorce inquiries from couples who were forced to quarantine together as a result of the coronavirus crisis. As the courts nationwide slowly begin to reopen and catch up on past cases that were put on hold during the shutdown, it is expected that more people will file for divorce in the coming weeks and months. If you have a pending divorce case that has been delayed due to COVID-19, or if you are considering filing for divorce due to domestic violence or some other reason, your first step should be to discuss your case with a reputable divorce lawyer. Divorce is never an easy process and filing for divorce may be even more complicated and time-consuming now because of COVID-19. With an experienced divorce attorney on your side, you can make the process as simple and stress-free as possible.