Divorce lawyers across the nation are anticipating a surge in cases from couples dealing with the stressors COVID-19. We speak with two local divorce and family law experts about how to navigate the court system. 

Laurel Hook, a leading litigator at Stahancyk, Kent & Hook, says it’s not surprising that her office is seeing an uptick in divorce consultations. Not only has the sweeping coronavirus pandemic added a “pressure cooker component” to relationships already in turmoil, Hook says it’s also added tremendous job loss, and with that, considerable modifications in child and social support for parents navigating this new reality. 

As divorce lawyers across the country are preparing for a surge in divorce cases Hook says, “We’re going to see lots of babies and lots of divorces come these future months—hopefully not the same couples. But it’s an interesting phenomenon.” 

Portland Monthly spoke with two divorce and family law experts to learn about navigating the court system during COVID-19.

Are the courts closed?

Not quite. Oregon courts have been operating at a limited capacity (Level 3 Restrictions, to be exact) in accordance with an order issued March 16, and amended on March 27, by Oregon Chief Justice Martha L. Walters, which places restrictions on trials and other court proceedings until at least June 1.

As divorce lawyers across the country prepare for a surge in divorce cases, Laurel P. Hook says, “We’re going to see lots of babies and lots of divorces come these future months—hopefully not the same couples. But it’s an interesting phenomenon.”

“When [the courts] closed, what remained open was the ability to find those protective hearings, so restraining orders for domestic violence cases and for immediate danger for children. What’s different now is I’ve never navigated a time period when the courts have been closed and folks are wanting to move forward with their divorce cases,” Hook says. “The reality is that as we reopen in June, it’s fair to anticipate that there will be a backlog in cases that had to be pushed out during this time period.”

Can I still file for divorce?

At least in the tri-county area, courts are allowing initiations for new divorces. In Oregon, a spouse could voluntarily accept service (i.e. sign an Acceptance of Service) for divorce papers, in which case law firms can provide a copy of documents to the spouse via email or mail. A third party, such as a process server, sheriff, or a friend (over the age of 18), can serve divorce papers to a spouse if they will not voluntarily accept them.

“That has not changed due to COVID,” says Jill Brittle of Jill Brittle Law Group L.P. “Our process servers are still serving documents, just with some cautions in place.”

After they’re served, respondents have 30 days to respond, by which time the courts may be open. But Brittle says it’s a different story if complications arise or if couples are trying to get a hearing.

“For example, if you have one party who was refusing to provide the financial disclosures they’re supposed to provide, there is no mechanism to get into court right now to force them to do that, which would be a motion to compel,” Brittle says. “In Multnomah County, we’re not even allowed to file a contempt case at all unless it’s about enforcement of parenting time. But if it’s just someone hasn’t paid a bill or something, they’re not even accepting filings until June. It just depends what service people are coming in to request.”

What if I filed for divorce before the pandemic? 

It’s likely been postponed, as the court system’s cases have essentially been put on hold. What both Hook and Brittle have seen in their respective law firms is a surge in mediations and informal negotiations. All of the aspects of a divorce that don’t involve a court—exchanging of documents, settlement letters, house appraisals—are still happening. But if you’re at a stalemate in settlement, don’t expect to go to court anytime soon. 

“I also think what [the pandemic and subsequent court closure is] doing is encouraging more people to get to settlement, because what we recognize is even when the courts open up in June, they have this backlog,” Brittle says. “There were all these cases that were supposed to be heard in March, April, and May that are going to get priority over any new cases being filed just because of how long they’ve been waiting. The people filing right now are going to wait even longer than they normally would to get to a trial just because of this backlog."

I just lost my job as a result of the coronavirus. How do I navigate child support payments?

Before and during COVID times, your support obligation accrues whether you can pay it or not until a court or administration agency modifies it. What you need to do a file a motion to modify your support amount.

“When you file to modify child support or parenting time, your change in the support amount [could] be retroactive to when you file,” Hook says. “So there is a true need and urgency to get a motion filed as soon as possible to preserve your ability to have the reality of coronavirus make its way through the courts or to a negotiation to have your support change.” 

How do I navigate my parenting time plan?

When Oregon first initiated its stay home executive order, Hook and Brittle say there were a lot of calls coming in about parents following proper physical distancing etiquette and guidelines and about whether parenting time would change for essential workers. The Oregon Statewide Family Law Advisory Committee issued guidelines in March for parents who share custody or parenting time, saying the goal of the recommendations “is to encourage the parties to follow their parenting plan as closely as possible, as doing so will ensure a level of consistency and stability that is in the children’s best interests.”

"Anytime that you apply stressors to an already challenging relationship you’re going to have more breakdowns," says Jill Brittle. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she and other divorce and family law attorneys have been helping the public navigate a court system with limited capacity. 

Hook says there are still some phone calls where parents are using COVID-19 as a reason to deny parenting time, but the guidelines urge parents to follow parenting plans as closely as they can. 

“At the beginning of the stay home order, there was a good amount of dialogue in many cases and among practitioners about the concern that the ‘other parent’ wasn’t following the same safe measures as in their house,” Hook says. “There are still those that have continuing issues, but the beginning of this process was far more rocky in how you can transfer a child back and forth between households, how you manage if one of the parents is an essential worker and there is child going back and forth between houses, and in those cases there have been some where the children stays with just one parent or that the frequency of the back and forth has changed for this unusual time.”

What are some things to know as I move forward with my divorce? 

Divorce, in and of itself, is emotionally, physically, and financially tasking. Coupled with a looming pandemic, both Hook and Brittle worry about the potential for domestic violence-related issues to surge. What’s important right now is to act sooner rather than later.

“Moving forward, our office is open. Most offices are open at this time,” Hook says “It’s a good time to start collecting what you need to collect to move forward with this process. Have a consultation and learn what it is that you need to be ready for because if there is going to be a push, as I anticipate, in cases, having your ducks in a row makes some good sense. And keep in mind that that pressure cooker that exists now won’t exist for ever. This truly is an unusual circumstance that we’re facing.”

Recognizing the crisis you’re in, Brittle says, can also help you through this process.

“Something I always tell people when they’re going through divorce, and it’s even more true now, is how important it is to have self-care and a support system,” Brittle says. “You know, anytime people are going through a divorce, it’s a crisis. Your brain goes into survival mode. You’re not your highest and best self because you’re worried about ‘Am I going to have enough money to support my kids. Will I be OK?’ That kind of fear gets in the way of constructive problem solving often.”

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