How COVID-19 Changed Family Law (and What to Expect in the Future)

It is an understatement to say the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed our everyday life. As individuals, we have had to make changes, some big and some small to our daily routines. From quarantining in our homes to social distancing amongst our peers and wearing masks in public, this pandemic has forced us to rethink how we interact with others.

Our team at Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, has witnessed how this pandemic has changed family law. Understanding the possible positive and negative impacts of this pandemic on your family law case can help you prepare for the future.

The Shift to Online: Changing Courtrooms Across the US

The COVID-19 pandemic shocked the legal industry at large. This courts were forced to restructure how they handle their docket. When this first began, most courts paused all non-emergency cases for a certain period of time. Now that Courts are holding hearings for non-emergency cases, there is and will continue to be a huge case backlog that will take months to work through.

During the pandemic, courts have utilized video conferencing tools such as Zoomto conduct remote hearings. Many Courts have also streamed their hearings live on YouTube. At this time, the Texas Supreme Court is still holding remote hearings via Zoom and broadcasting them on YouTube. As some courts begin to hold hearings in person, they are mandating social distancing with social distancing markers, limiting the number of people in a Courtroom, and requiring facial coverings. Some Courts have even installed plexiglass amongst counsel tables as an added protection measure.

Although some Courts (and Texas businesses at large) are reopening, this does not mean the pandemic is over. In fact, Texas reported a record-breaking number of COVID-related hospitalizations as the state began to reopen. Some epidemiologists predict that a second wave of COVID could hit the world at large this winter.

If COVID-19 cases continue to rise, or if there is second wave this winter, Courts could shut down again and re-implement remote hearings for non-emergency and emergency matters.

Now that many courts have set up remote hearings guidelines and adjusted their operations, it would not be a surprise if Courts continued to utilize remote hearings in the future. The use of remote hearings has advantages and disadvantages:

  • Convenience. For individuals who may lack access to transportation or live in a busy county where parking and driving to the Courthouse is a hassle, using a laptop or desktop to attend a hearing could make the process easier. Remote hearings are also a more convenient forum for short hearings or Prove-Ups.
  • Technological Difficulties. In rural areas where people may not have access to high-speed internet or if an individual possibly does not have access to technology, attending an online hearing may be challenging. There is a possibility for a screen to glitch or freeze during testimony. The mute button has also been an issue for individuals who may not know that a Judge has heard their sensitive information as they thought they were muted.
  • Time. Most lawyers across the nation have agreed for trials or for hearings lasting more than an hour, Zoom can be a difficult forum for witness testimony and exhibits. If you need to show multiple exhibits, a screen-share can be voluminous and time consuming versus handling this in person. Further handling multiple witnesses online can be a difficult task.
  • E-File. Most courts were moving towards filing documents online before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic has forced e-filing to those counties that may have not utilized this option. Some counties only offered e-filing to attorneys and now have moved towards offering this to pro-se individuals. We could see more counties follow the trend of e-filing which enables people to continue filing cases online instead of in-person.

It will be interesting if Courts continue to utilize video conferencing tools and other online services moving forward.

Parents May Rethink Child Custody Moving Forward

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, child custody arrangements have forced parents to have difficult conversations and questions. Many parents struggled to come to an agreement when it came to their visitation schedule, health care decisions, or educational decisions. This pandemic exposed several issues in child custody Orders. Some common questions parents have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • Has our exchange time and location for the child changed? Schools and childcare facilities across the country shut down which removed the exchange location for many parents. In addition, if one child is learning online at another parent’s residence does it follow that the house is now the exchange location?
  • What happens when a parent or child has symptoms of COVID-19? Parents were forced to either self-quarantine or possibly miss time with their child if an individual experienced symptom of the virus. With the overwhelming need to limit exposure, a common question amongst parents concerned whether or not the sick and/or well parent get to make up for the time they missed with the child? It is important to have a plan in place in the event a party or child is sick going forward. Further many parents have different beliefs on social distancing guidelines with their child. Last, Parents should also consider their estate planning, as having an estate plan in place is vital in an uncertain time.
  • What about Essential Workers? Essential workers or people who share custody with an essential worker were forced to determine whether they represented a risk to their children. As a result, many parents established ways to spend time with children remotely, such as by using Zoom, FaceTime, or window visits. Parents may consider using technology or get creative to stay in touch with their children.
  • What happens when a parent loses their job? The COVID-19 pandemic shocked the US economy, resulting in over 40 million job losses. This has affected child support, living environments, housing situations and beyond.

While COVID-19 has resulted in difficult decisions and conversations for parents around the globe, it may have valuable benefits in encouraging parents to develop creative child custody arrangements.

Divorce and Domestic Violence Rate May Escalate

As we wrote in a previous blog post, lawyers across the country predict an escalation in the divorce rate post-COVID, mirroring a divorce rate that boomed in China when quarantines there lifted.

Unfortunately, it also appears that the domestic violence rate has escalated during the quarantine. A study by UT-Dallas revealed that family violence increased by 12.5% in Dallas during the city's shelter-at-home order. Similar escalations were reported across other North Texas cities throughout Denton, Collin, and Tarrant Counties.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a multi-faceted impact on family law. We hope that by discussing how the coronavirus has impacted the industry, our clients have a better idea of what to expect in and out of the courtroom moving forward.

For all your family law disputes, our team here at Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, is here for you. We have over a century of combined experience helping clients navigate complex family law matters, and we stand ready to assist you navigate the added complexities COVID-19 has introduced.

To receive a consultation with our firm, contact us online or via phone at (940) 293-2313.

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