Divorce is never pleasant, even under the most amicable of circumstances. Throw in a global pandemic and the process can be even harder for estranged couples and their children. No matter how ready you may be to move forward, it’s a hurry-up-and-wait situation.
That’s emotionally taxing, delaying resolution for everyone involved. A drawn-out process can have financial consequences as well. Plus, some attorneys have raised concerns about issues being decided through virtual hearings. Here is expert advice for getting your family through a pandemic divorce.
Understanding the family court bottleneck and other unique issues
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit in spring 2020, family court hearings were put on hold, just like other day-to-day business. As it became clear that the virus wasn’t going away quickly, many judges moved to Zoom hearings. Cases began moving along, but not at a sufficient pace.
That leaves us where we are today: with a bottleneck in the state’s family courts. In fact, Justin Sisemore of Sisemore Law Firm—which practices in Denton, Tarrant and Dallas counties—says that couples who file for divorce this year may have a two-year wait to get into court to take care of complex issues and obtain a final decree of divorce.
It’s not clear when the bottleneck could resolve.
Fort Worth mom Julie Harris knows all about the frustration of trying to finalize a divorce under those circumstances. (Her name has been changed at Harris’ request, as her divorce is ongoing.) Her split started in 2019, and with court dates and communications delayed, Harris remains officially married to her ex.
“It wasn’t the court’s fault or my attorney’s fault that COVID showed up,” Harris says, “but this entire divorce process has been hard on my emotions. Each day has to be taken on its own.”
There are complications for estranged spouses to deal with these days beyond delays. Some worry that a virtual format makes it more difficult for a judge to discern someone’s genuine nature.
Another issue is that Zoom hearings tend to be shorter than past, in-person hearings. Sisemore recalls a case in which each side had only 20 minutes to plead.
“That’s not adequate time when you’re dealing with complex property issues, family violence or a child custody dispute, and you need to present numerous exhibits or conduct thorough cross-examinations to reveal the full story,” he says.
Sisemore adds that with more limited opportunities to make your case, the quality of your legal representation is more important than ever. Even if you’re desperate to file, consider multiple lawyers before you retain one.
While COVID-19 postponements and technological disadvantages could be experienced by any divorcing couple, the pandemic has created special concerns for parents.
In Harris’ case, the court wants to send someone to evaluate her children’s living situation. But home visits became complicated by exposure concerns. Then there was the matter of Harris’ exposure concerns for her children when they were with their father.
“I wasn’t sure the kids’ dad would be willing to take the steps necessary to implement the recommended safe practices—masks, social distancing, avoiding strangers,” Harris says. “I was nervous about continuing the custody-possession arrangement.”
That is a common situation. Sisemore says many parents don’t agree on how to handle the unique issues posed by the pandemic. Some are even keeping the children from seeing the other parent in violation of existing orders.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for parents to not violate their court orders, because judges will enforce those orders to the full extent of the law,” Sisemore notes. “Parents should also know that if they agreed to certain orders post-COVID … the judge won’t have any patience for parents who want to modify those orders now without a change in circumstances.”
If you believe there has been a change in circumstances, giving you cause to not go along with existing custody orders, it’s important to contact your attorney immediately.
Ease divorce stress with therapy for you and your children
Of course, the legal aspect of divorce is not the only consideration, particularly when children are involved. The emotional side is important to address.
“Anytime a parent is under a tremendous amount of stress, it can impact children,” points out Laura Elpers Pierce, who practices with Insights Therapy in Dallas and specializes in child therapy and parental support.
The stress can indeed be tremendous. With hearings delayed, an estranged spouse may be wasting assets or refusing to pay child support, while the other parent could be dealing with pandemic-related job loss or a reduction in work hours.
On top of the everyday anxieties we’ve all felt during the pandemic, a divorcing mother or father could easily reach a breaking point.
But those emotions are not something you have to manage on your own. Counseling can be a great way to unburden your mind and get objective feedback on the best way to handle your family situation. “I have found parent coaching to be tremendously productive as a way to encourage healthy relationships and progress at home,” Pierce says.
Of course, therapy can also be extremely beneficial for children experiencing divorce. Around age 9 or 10, those sessions can include directed activities and conversations, much like therapy for adults.
For younger kids, play therapy is the method of choice. That’s therapy conducted on a child’s specific developmental level, using play as a tool to understand situations, explore emotions and teach coping mechanisms.
While some therapists have returned to the in-person office visits, virtual therapy remains an option for families with ongoing health and safety concerns. “Aspects are different, but virtual play therapy can certainly happen,” Pierce says. “Because many children experienced online school, they have become familiar with virtual interaction, making online therapy a comfortable transition.”
If your child can’t go to an office and won’t tolerate virtual counseling, a therapist may be able to work through you, the parent, to offer support. Pierce advises contacting your preferred therapist to talk about what session formats are available.
In addition, children can get support from other adults, such as a teacher or another relative. The important thing is to give them an outlet to talk about what they’re going through.
Your family may also want to seek outside assistance if you disagree with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse on pandemic-related issues—ongoing mask-wearing, online versus in-person school and the safety of travel, for example.
Harris didn’t raise an argument about her concerns regarding her children’s potential risk for COVID-19 with their father—“I just let him do his thing, and I did mine,” she says—but sometimes those issues come to a head. In that case, it’s essential to find some type of resolution so your children don’t feel caught in the middle.
“If [safety] expectations differ, I’d encourage parents to have a discussion with a professional as an attempt to work toward a compromise and organize communication to the children,” Pierce recommends.
If it’s a health and safety question, consult your child’s pediatrician—but don’t speak ill of your co-parent or discuss any other politics of your divorce. Those aren’t things your pediatrician is called to handle, and they don’t want to be put in that position.
Focus on your children during a difficult divorce
“The reality is that divorce wasn’t designed to be easy,” says Sisemore. “It’s just one of those things in life that’s going to be hard.”
Harris agrees, and says it’s especially true during the pandemic. She’s making it through by reminding herself about her priorities: her three children. “I had to work hard to stay focused on what really mattered and keep myself strong and healthy,” she reflects, “so I could get through the divorce and COVID with the least impact on my kids.”
Divorce, By the Book
Books are a great way to start a conversation with your child about divorce. Here are some recommendations:
- Was It the Chocolate Pudding? A Story for Little Kids About Divorce, by Sandra Levins: Ages 2–6
- Living With Mom and Living With Dad, by Melanie Walsh: Ages 3–7
- Standing on My Own Two Feet, by Tamara Schmitz: Ages 3–7
- Emily’s Blue Period, by Cathleen Daly: Ages 4–7
- It’s Not the End of the World, by Judy Blume: Ages 8–12
Image courtesy of iStock.