How COVID-19 Is Affecting Family Law Matters

A Colorado attorney speaks on the pandemic’s impact on his clients

We recently spoke to family law attorney Marc Kaplan of Kaplan Law in Denver, who shared what he’s been hearing from clients in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as his thoughts on how the public health crisis might continue to affect the legal system moving forward.

How has the pandemic affected your practice?

It’s changed in terms of logistics: working from home; doing things virtually. But also the focus is different. You can’t turn on the TV or the radio without hearing about it. It’s the first thing you talk about with people when you see them.

It’s permeated all the legal cases, as well. The uncertainty of the day has affected my clients’ lives.

What sorts of concerns are you hearing from clients?

Family has been directly affected. I see a lot of people saying, [with regard to custody matters], “My son isn’t allowed to come home,” or “I’m worried about him bringing the virus when he comes back,” or “I don’t want to let my kid go, because [their other parent] isn’t taking this seriously, and I don’t want him to get sick.” When you have kids moving from one household to another, how do you do that when you’re really supposed to be isolating and separating. People are concerned about the wellbeing of their children.

Then there are financial problems, with people losing jobs or getting furloughed: “How am I supposed to pay this?”, “Can I get out of the deal we just cut?” and “I want to get a divorce but I can’t afford it.”

The uncertainty is what’s driving everything. Most people will make decisions once they have a sense of where they’re going. Now it’s very hard to plan. Nobody knows when they’re going to go back to normal life, or close to it. I think people are hesitating to make decisions.

What have you been able to tell them?

I just had a discussion with a client who didn’t want to let his ex-wife pick up their child on Sunday. I basically told him, “Tough. You’re not going to get a judge who’s going to say that you get to keep the kid indefinitely. It’s not going to happen. You’ll just have to cross your fingers.”

Initially the concern was: are you violating a stay-at-home order if you’re going to pick up a child or bring a child to the other parent. Most jurisdictions are saying no. Following court orders is an exception.

Do you foresee any additional challenges arising as the pandemic continues?

I really do. The private sector—including lawyers—made a quick adjustment to logistically get around this problem of working at home. The court system has not, at least in this state. They’re basically saying, “Please don’t file things that don’t have to be filed.” They’re not equipped to do virtual hearings. They’re handling matters of critical importance, like protection orders. Otherwise, you’re going into this black hole and they’re postponing things as long as they can. Nothing is getting done to speak of. We’re having hearings postponed until May or June, and everything’s going to pile up, and who knows when you’re ever going to get a judge to help you.

The bottom line is the court system is not prepared to operate the way the private sector is, and so there is no real court system right now for most people. What I’ve concluded is that we need to establish our own private system. It’s been out there, but it hasn’t been utilized very much. Arbitration, or using what we call special masters, are ways to get thing resolved and not wait for the courts to catch up—because they may never catch up.

So I think people will have to have to use a private system, and I think that’s going to be the big trend. People are going to find it’s more economical, it’s speedier, and they’re going to like it.

What would you say to consumers who are worried about how the pandemic will affect a family law matter they’re involved in?

Don’t wait. Don’t wait for [the situation] to settle, because then you’re going to be stuck in this backlog. You’re not going to be able to get the results you want in a timely manner. So you need to start now. Even though things are uncertain, you need to start formulating what your goals are and how best to reach them.

Obviously, you need to be flexible. You don’t know what the economy is going to be; you don’t know if you’re going to be sick. But I think sitting back and doing nothing is going to mean it will take a long time to get anywhere. I think a lot of people are waiting, and I understand that. But I don’t think the legal system is going to serve them well.

For information on more legal questions regarding COVID-19, visit FindLaw’s legal center, or find more articles on superlawyers.com/articles (search for COVID-19).

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