Joe: What are the biggest issues that you’re seeing on the family law side of things during this pandemic?
Cooper: Joe, what we are seeing is a lot of issues that are coming up, and I think that they’re not being solved as quickly as people might like them to be because all of the county courts are closed.
Philadelphia County, Montgomery County, Delaware County, and Bucks County are closed. So if you have a child custody dispute, you may (experience) a support issue. And the reason why these (issues) are coming up, even more than normal, (is because it is) at a time when the courts really aren’t able to dispose of them.
What are we facing?
Cooper: For example, let’s talk about first responders. We appreciate everything that they’re doing out there. But you (may) have a first responder – let’s say a firefighter or EMT or hospital worker – who has a child custody order. Meaning they’re supposed to have their child with them certain nights of the week and because the other parent has a concern that either there’s going to be an infection and the child could become ill, or there’s an elderly relative (that is) living with one parent, they decide unilaterally that they don’t want to follow the order anymore.
I’ve had a lot of my clients calling me with these issues on a daily basis ever since St. Patrick’s Day. I might have a client, who’s a firefighter, who has their ex-wife saying, “Yeah, too bad. The kids are going to stay with me until this all blows over.” And now it has been a month.
So you can imagine how that might feel. You’re out there putting your life on the line just to try to see your kids under an agreed-upon court order already signed by a judge. The issue is you may not be able to go in and file a motion for contempt. It’s frustrating for a lot of people and children themselves also don’t necessarily know what to expect.
You can understand both sides of the equation and at the same time, it’s got to be painful.
What about child support or alimony payments?
Cooper: Those are the other major issues that are coming up right now because you might have someone who is used to making a certain amount of money. That amount of money pays to support either the child or former spouse, and sometimes even a current spouse. The amount of money that they’re ordered to pay is through the courts and the amount of money that’s directed to come from their paycheck every pay period is set based on the amount of money that they were making before all of this (COVID-19).
There has not been time for anyone to adjust that, yet. So what we’re seeing are people unable to make the payments that they are obligated to make – not because they don’t want to but because they absolutely can’t right now.
A lot of the union workers that I know are still able to work. A lot of them don’t have a choice. Sometimes, more than they normally would, but I know that there are other trades that have been really shut down.
Obviously, food workers are really not getting hours like they should, so it’s creating a lot of problems. One thing that I’m advising my clients is that you don’t know when things are going to get back to normal. So the first thing that I tell them is that if you’ve seen a decrease in your income, you need to file a support modification. And that’s something that we can do for you (now).
It’s one of the few things that we’re able to do through the courts right now. Because the courts have had to limit what they’re able to handle they have limited cases to mostly child custody cases and protection from abuse emergencies.
What can be done about current support payments?
Cooper: Because there is electronic filing, we are able to file a petition to modify support. Now, that’s not going to help you today, but what it will do is it will preserve the retroactive date. For when your order ultimately gets adjusted.
Let’s say, for example, we finally get the court in June. The courts are not going to hold you responsible for your full salary for the time period between when we filed the modification petition and when you actually get into court. So we’ll adjust your payments over the course of that time.
Now, like I said, that doesn’t necessarily help the recipient or the single mom who’s relying on that money coming in from the other parent. But it’s just a very challenging time all around.
We’re doing our best to be able to give people the best advice possible in this unusual situation.
What to consider if you’re facing unemployment?
Joe: Patrick, as you mentioned, I’m an employee with support coming out of my check. I’m now unemployed. But the support is supposed to continue to be paid. I could quickly find myself in a troubled area within eight to twelve weeks. And then find myself with other legal ramifications from just the mere nature of my relationship, which perhaps I have or don’t have, with my ex?
Cooper: Well, that’s right. And in some cases my client calls me, I then call their spouse, their ex, or the other parent’s attorney and we’re able to work something out on a temporary basis. Even if there’s no attorney on the other side, sometimes we can work something out on a temporary basis because some people do understand. Unfortunately, some people don’t.
Will we see leniency in court?
Joe: Do you expect leniency in these times? I mean, obviously people are losing jobs or they’re working less or they’re working on the front lines on both sides. Do you expect leniency?
Cooper: I do expect that. I think that once we get back into court and all the dust starts settling, so to speak, I think that there’s going to have to be.
We mentioned child custody disputes earlier and you said you could see both sides of the argument, right? What I’m thinking is people are making judgment calls right now, like “I’m going to keep my child safe” or “I’m going to do this or do that, even though I may not follow a court order.” If my clients are the ones not being allowed to see their children, I may be filing a contempt petition and trying to hold the other parent accountable once things start moving again.
They’re going to say, “look I’m going to take my chances on that and I’m going to hope I can explain to the judge that I was doing the right thing in my mind.” So you may have that argument come up.
You’re certainly also going to have these dollars and cents arguments about “your income is not what it was and that’s no fault of your own,” and so I do think that you’re going to see that come into play.
What is happening with divorce court?
Joe: What about divorce cases? How is the closure of the courts impacting those cases?
Cooper: You’re not going to be getting a final divorce decree while the family court is closed, but it does not stop you from taking some of the most important steps in a divorce case. There is a running joke that at the end of this there are going to be a lot of babies or a lot of divorces. I expect there’s going to be a lot of both.
Joe: Right. I really wasn’t joking by the way. I was only half-joking but go ahead.
Cooper: Well, I think you’re going to probably be all the way correct. Time tells the whole story.
What to do if you’re thinking about divorce?
Cooper: What I’m telling my clients right now, for those that it has become more clear than ever that they need to take this step, (is that they need to) use this time right now to consult with your attorney, to find out what you need to know, and what you need to pull together as far as documentation, organizing, and planning.
You could also consider options that may not have been considered a few months ago and one of those would be divorce mediation. Divorce mediation can save people a lot of time and a lot of money. And you can do it without having to rely on the courts and court timelines (for reopening).
That’s another service that we offer, and I think it’s a great option, depending on your situation. If it works for you, it works for you. If it doesn’t work for you then, of course, you can go the traditional divorce route. And in that case, you’re going to need an attorney that you trust, so there’s really no time like the present to begin establishing that relationship.
Joe: Of course, in terms of family law and getting information. There are a lot of stressed people out there, so I want to thank Pat for doing what he’s doing and keep up the good work! We got to have part two as soon as possible.