The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, emerged in December 2019. The virus can spread from person to person and the effects of the disease range from asymptomatic to severe. Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear differently in different people, such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Loss of taste and/or smell
COVID-19 and Court Restrictions
In March of 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. In the same month, the United States announced a national emergency due to the virus’s outbreak. Guidelines were implemented for social distancing to minimize the person-to-person contact and risk of exposure. Eventually, states began to close businesses and recreational locations to help eradicate COVID-19. Essential workers, as determined by the local, state and federal governing bodies, were allowed to continue operations. Essential workers include healthcare workers, emergency responders, grocery stores employees, bank employees and legal services employees.
In April 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court’s Chief Justice made a court order to restrict all court operations until she ordered otherwise. The order pushed back trials, hearings and proceedings at least two months back with exceptions for essential proceedings. Some court proceedings could be held remotely by video conference or phone calls. Many family law cases fell under the court restriction, including divorce cases.
COVID-19 Effects on Settling Divorce Cases
Throughout the pandemic, courthouses in Portland have begun lifting restrictions and opening in phases. The openings lead toward in-person court hearings and proceedings; however, the economic effects from the COVID-19 outbreak may roadblock divorce cases. Issues addressed in divorce cases include property division, debt division, child support, child custody and spousal support.
With the increase in unemployment during the pandemic, it may be more challenging to settle a divorce case. This is especially true if the divorce case was near settlement before the outbreak. The effect of a spouse’s unemployment may be a significant factor in the amount of spousal support. Moreover, depending on the type of property owned by the spouses, the property value may have significantly changed because of the pandemic. The property value will affect the distribution of the property to settle the divorce. Spouses who have lost their jobs or are financially struggling due to COVID-19 may be less willing to part with property, such as the marital home and vehicles.
Financial hardships arising out of the coronavirus pandemic may affect spousal support. The spouse who would have paid spousal support to the other spouses may not have the same income or no income at all. This can cause financial strain on the paying spouse and the spouse to receive the support. Because of the inability to predict how long the pandemic will go on the future of the employment crisis may be difficult to assess.
In addition to property division and spousal support, the pandemic has also impacted child support, child custody and visitation in divorce cases. Although there is a health crisis, children must still receive support for custody, care and finances from their parents. However, when one parent has legal and physical custody, the other parent is usually ordered by the court to pay child support. With the financial downturn the noncustodial parent’s finances may be drastically less than before the outbreak.
The typical issues involved in child custody have new concerns that must be considered.
Education is an integral part of a child’s life. During the pandemic home-based education is being used to help maintain social distancing and promote safety measures. While child custody is always determined based on what is in the child’s best interest a parent’s ability to support home-based education may become a central issue during a divorce. The courts may look at whether the parents have the necessary internet capabilities, the availability to be with the child during the school day at home, and the time, resources and ability to assist with the education.
Another possible concern with settling a divorce case during the pandemic is the issue of parenting time. More commonly known as visitation, parenting time requires physical and remote interaction between the noncustodial parent and child as outlined in the parenting plan. It may be a health concern for a child to go back and forth between parents’ homes; however, the parenting time must still be put in place. With different counties possibly having vastly different coronavirus ordinances and restrictions, settling a parenting plan may be more difficult. If one of the spouses lives outside of Oregon, the other states’ restrictions may postpone the ability to settle the issues in the divorce case.