COVID-19 has impacted marriages for better and for worse. For some the additional time at home with the family has been just what the doctor ordered. For others, the lockdown has highlighted the incompatibility of the situation. Most people have been holding their breath to see how things will shake out post-COVID; however, we have not been able to get past COVID as quickly as we had hoped and are realizing that we have to continue to function amidst the pandemic. Those contemplating divorce wonder if it is feasible, given the uncertainty of the world. Though COVID may add an extra layer of consideration in an already complicated decision, the past few months have shown us that it is possible to get divorced during COVID. It may just be a more virtual experience with an added layer of uncertainty.
It has taken a few months, but most processes and professionals associated with a divorce case are functioning, albeit with different formats. Many courts and Friends of Court are still backlogged from the lock down period, so delays could be an issue, but services are resuming. Over the last few months, we have adapted to phone meetings, video conference mediations, electronic court filings, Zoom court hearings and, when needed, masked in-person meetings. Technology also allows us to involve financial planners, realtors, appraisers, therapists and accountants as needed. People have gotten creative by sitting in their cars for privacy or parking outside WiFi hotspots for internet access.
Since the start of the pandemic, courts across Michigan have consistently held that parents must follow existing parenting time orders. There have been limited exceptions due to long distance or special medical circumstances, but for the most part children have been going between both parents’ homes and utilizing more virtual time over Skype, FaceTime, Houseparty and other apps. Parents who are in the process of negotiating parenting time schedules may want to consider special provisions to deal with child care, virtual school issues, travel and support in the event a parent becomes affected by COVID. However, you can expect courts to address custody and parenting time issues as they usually would, based upon the statutory best interest factors.
The marital home is often the biggest asset in a divorce case, and people are rightfully concerned about the effects of COVID on the housing market. If neither party is able to keep the home, is this a good time to sell? According to several realtors across Southeast Michigan, COVID has not put a damper on home sales in this area. Sales temporarily went down in mid-March, but home prices did not collapse. For now, COVID is still considered a temporary setback. However, as COVID lingers, it is possible that the housing market will see a negative impact, especially if more people lose jobs and have less confidence in the economy as well as their own personal financial situation. At present, the overall momentum in the housing market is strong, and interest rates remain low. Realtors report that there is low inventory of homes with pent-up demand; many sellers are seeing bidding wars and selling above their asking prices. Delays in new construction are contributing to the low inventory of available homes, so if you are in the market for a new home due to a pending divorce, you may have to consider renting or staying in the marital home longer than anticipated.
While housing prices have remained steady (or have improved) since COVID, some financial situations are less stable due to unemployment, pay cuts, salary deferments or a volatile stock market. Parties may agree that it is not feasible to support two households at this time or that it is better to wait out the COVID pandemic. Though it is important to note that all divorce cases, regardless of when filed, involve some amount of financial uncertainty, employment and financial markets are never completely secure. The same income that supported one household now has to support two; assets are split in half, new budgets have to be imposed, etc. Perhaps COVID has amplified some of these factors. If waiting is not an option, and the divorce case is proceeding, you may have to revise expectations. There may be less money available to pay down debt, buy out home equity or put toward the down payment of a new house, or you may have to delay retirement.
If spousal support is an issue in the divorce and income is uncertain due to COVID, you could consider a reservation of the issue or a modifiable amount. Child support (by law) remains modifiable upon a change in circumstances, but if parties know that changes are likely in the short term, they can include alternate support scenarios or automatic support reviews into their divorce agreements to avoid having to file motions to modify with the court. You can also opt to handle child care payments outside the child support formula, so that the support order does not need to be changed each time your child care situation changes. In such a scenario, each parent would pay his/her share of child care directly to the child care provider or make arrangements to reimburse each other, rather than including an annualized amount of child care in the monthly child support payment. Many parents utilized this arrangement before COVID; however, the additional court back logs and increased uncertainty of employment and child care options makes this an especially prudent option in upcoming divorce cases.
If you are contemplating filing for divorce and have concerns about any of these issues, Varnum’s family law team is available to answer your questions.