Divorce is rarely easy. No matter how amicable the process might be, it is an emotionally difficult time of loss and uncertainty, and often a complex undertaking even when the divorcing couple are in general agreement. Divorce during Covid-19 can make the divorce process harder still, as our already-strained and difficult-to-navigate court systems are struggling to adapt to safety concerns while at the same time dealing with massive budgetary shortfalls. Add to that the significant financial uncertainty many people are facing during Covid, making the prospect of separating one household into two while also facing the possibility of large attorney’s fees for one or both parties even more daunting.
As a family law litigator and mediator with nearly three decades of experience, I have observed that this is among the most challenging times I have ever witnessed for those relying upon the courts to resolve their divorce disputes, whether over child custody, child support, spousal support or division of property. Each county has instituted its own rules and procedures (which can change with little warning) for its courts, but in general, no matter what court you are in, you are likely to find more limited services and accessibility to information, and you are likely to experience longer-than-usual delays in getting results from the courts (and the “usual delay” was pretty long even in normal times).
For example, many courts have completely closed their “self-help centers” for in-person consultation. Rather than being able to go to a filing window and provide your paperwork to a clerk who can examine your documents for issues and answer your questions, while also filing said documents and returning court-stamped documents on the spot, many courts require that all documents be left in an outdoor “dropbox” which can result in additional weeks or months of delay. Court hearings are often held over the phone rather than in person, adding additional confusion and stress, particularly where documents and witnesses are needed.
All that said, I have long felt that taking family law disputes to a public courthouse is often the least efficient and most expensive way to finalize a divorce. And, while the challenges of Covid may be new, the underlying stress, financial cost and delay associated with the courts are not new and have only been exacerbated by Covid.
Because of this, I have worked with my clients to successfully resolve their divorces in non-courtroom processes, including mediation, good-faith negotiation, collaborative divorce and proceedings with private judges who operate outside of the public courts. The Covid-related additional costs and delays to clients litigating in the courts has only strengthened my resolve to steer and guide my clients to stay out of court, guard their privacy and preserve their family wealth through these alternative divorce resolution processes. They can briefly be described as follows and can be done virtually:
Mediation: Both parties, with or without attorneys, work with a trained mediator skilled in helping the parties reach a global out-of-court settlement of their divorce. I serve as both a mediator as well as a consulting attorney for parties working with a separate mediator.
Lawyer-to-Lawyer Negotiation: Both parties work with their attorneys to reach an out-of-court agreement on all issues of their divorce, ideally avoiding any courtroom hearings in the process.
Collaborative Law: A team approach incorporating attorneys, clients and the financial and mental health professionals the clients want on the team. The team works to reach agreement without resorting to the courts.
Private Judges: The parties may take their disputes to a private judge (typically a retired judge) who can make binding decisions to resolve the divorce, but in a private, more relaxed and client-friendly environment. Private judges can be hired to mediate or make decisions instead of the public courtroom judge.
Even as the courts slowly move toward a post-Covid “new normal” in the coming months, I believe that these alternative divorce resolution processes will continue to be preferable to court for those seeking to limit attorney costs and reduce stress and delay.
To explore reaching an efficient and timely resolution of your divorce outside of a public courtroom, visit ZonderFamilyLaw.comor contact ZFLG’s office at 805.777.7740.