Think Before You File for Divorce After Lockdown

A married couple arguing in front of child covering their ears signifying to Think Before You File For Divorce After Covid-19 Lockdown
Celebrity Divorce Lawyer Peter M. Walzer Advises to Think Before You File For Divorce After Covid-19 Lockdown

[Source: Bloomberg]

Celebrity divorce lawyer urges married couples to think before filing for divorce after the COVID-19 lockdown.

Personal assets are, at best, in flux. And child-custody battles might become even more complicated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Marriages are put to the test like never before, but several top family law attorneys state to think before you file for divorce after the lockdown.

One of the biggest spikes in the U.S. divorce rate was after World War II, when returning soldiers were greeted by wives who had become accustomed to running their households. Some of these homecomings weren’t exactly idyllic.

In a way, Covid-19 and the order to shelter in place could lead to a similar outcome. No one is returning from the front lines (unless one partner is a health-care worker), but many couples have become reacquainted, as they spend an unprecedented amount of time together confined in their homes and isolated from other people. They’ve struggled with who does what, while juggling jobs, furloughs, child care and household responsibilities.

An egalitarian relationship is now one of the best predictors of marriage satisfaction, said Stephanie Coontz, a historian who has written several books about marriage and gender and is the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

While American couples have been making progress on that front, only 30% of them report having a roughly equal share when it comes to child care and housework, according to research from Daniel Carlson and others. 

For the rest, the division of labor is something that happens more in theory than in practice. As dishes, dirty socks and distance-learning assignments pile up, some of these allegedly balanced relationships are being put to the test — especially for couples accustomed to outsourcing some of those tasks. This may be true even in cases where one spouse worked and the other ran the household. 

What’s worse, sparring spouses are unable to go somewhere, anywhere, and vent to help de-escalate a conflict. That’s one of the most important “escape valves” for preserving marriages, Coontz says. Relationships also get a boost from socializing as partners learn new things about the other or are reminded of their spouses’ best points.

Then there’s the financial strain resulting from the virus’s economic devastation. An additional 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits earlier this month, bringing the total to 16.8 million claims, or one in 10 American workers. Those numbers don’t account for the millions more who still have jobs but are seeing their compensation slashed and retirement accounts decimated.

Such extraordinary tension might bring spouses and families closer together. Or it could reveal fissures that were already there — and even may lead to break-ups that might not have happened under normal circumstances. If China is any guide, several cities reported record-high numbers of divorce filings in early March, with long backlogs at government offices. The New York Post reported that some divorce attorneys have been inundated with calls, especially from wealthy clients, including those holed up in the Hamptons. 

I spoke to half a dozen divorce attorneys across the country, including celebrity divorce lawyer Peter M. Walzer,  and, perhaps predictably, they all agreed that we’ll see an increase in divorce filings after things return to a more normal state. Peter M. Walzer warned “that a decision to divorce shouldn’t be made impulsively, especially amid the financial and social uncertainty the pandemic has introduced.” (This excludes situations where one of the parties feels unsafe.)

“Those who want to pull the plug as soon as possible should keep several things in mind. First off, the courts are currently closed, aside from urgent cases such as those involving domestic abuse,” states California top family law attorney Peter M. Walzer.   New York courts are starting to hold some conferences via Skype, but it could be months before any significant activity occurs.

“In California, courts may not reopen until as late as the end of June. Even once they’re back up and running, there will be a serious backlog,” explains Peter M. Walzer of top family law firm Walzer Melcher LLP. While parties can file a motion, it would be pretty awkward to start the procedure before a spouse can move out or a judge can actually hear a case. There’s another wrinkle with a shuttered judicial system. Lawyers with reputations for taking the other side to court say they can’t threaten that right now, which reduces their bargaining power.

Then there are homes, often a couple’s biggest asset. Sales are already slumping, with prices expected to fall later this year and early next in the low single digits nationwide. One attorney said he was thankful that a couple he represented reached a settlement on the value of their home before the shelter-in-place order, otherwise the value of the house could have been at least $1 million less in today’s market. 

“Likewise, valuations of many businesses for those who are self-employed are at an all-time low. For spouses anticipating support, filing before those assets have recovered would be a mistake. It’s also important to remember that different states have different rules for valuation dates for assets that will be divided at the time of divorce,” explains celebrity divorce lawyer Peter M. Walzer.

The most cautionary issues most lawyers said they’re dealing with now involve child-custody arrangements of divorced or divorcing couples. 

One anecdote I heard involved a parent who insisted that a piano teacher continue to come give lessons, while the other parent felt that was risky and stopped sending the kids for their usual visits. Other parents told their attorneys they wanted to withhold visits because their former spouses are health-care workers and they’re concerned about exposure. Additionally, there’s the logistical nightmare of how to shuttle children between homes.

Another attorney mentioned how the chaos has prompted him to start adding pandemic clauses to any new prenuptial and marital settlement agreements to spell out exactly what should be done. 

The universal advice from top divorce lawyers is clear: Even if judges can’t do much to enforce child-custody orders now, later on they won’t look kindly on parents who acted unreasonably.

And they cautioned that for unhappy spouses contemplating divorce, now is the time to be extra mindful of their behavior around their children. Otherwise steps to take in preparation — rather than panic-initiating battles — include tallying monthly expenses, reviewing credit-card statements and changing passwords.

And one other thing World War II-era couples didn’t have to worry about: cleaning up recreational activity on cellphones, if necessary. 

By    Alexis Leondis

April 15, 2020, 7:00 AM PDT