This Week’s Blog by Christopher J. DeMattie., a Westport and Greenwich lawyer at Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie LLC.
Are Courts in Connecticut Open?
Yes, the Courts in Connecticut are still open as of March 17, 2020. However, until at least March 27, 2020, the Courts will schedule and hear only those matters identified as “Priority 1 Business Functions.” Specific to Family Law, “Priority 1 Business Functions” are currently limited to: (1) Family Orders of Relief from Abuse, (2) Ex-Parte Motions, and (3) Emergency Ex-Parte Orders of Temporary Custody. This means that if you have a Trial, Hearing, Status Conference, Short Calendar Event, Uncontested Hearing, or Pretrial scheduled between now and March 27, 2020, it will be canceled and rescheduled to a different date. You should talk to your attorney about strategies to try and have your matter scheduled sooner rather than later when Court resumes normal functions, if possible. If you have a matter that falls into the “Priority 1 Business Functions” category, should you talk to your attorney immediately to develop a strategy to file your matter and get into Court on an expedited basis since Court remains open for those serious matters.
Can I still file for Divorce during the COVID-19 Quarantine?
Yes. Since the Courts in Connecticut are still open as of March 17, 2020, this means you can still file a divorce action. Because most Family Law matters in Connecticut are eligible for electronic filing, you or your attorney does not even have to appear at the Courthouse to file your action. In other words, everything can be done remotely to start your case.
If you are ready to file for divorce, there are some benefits to filing now, as opposed to waiting until things return to “normal.” First, the typical divorce action currently takes between 6-18 months to complete, but this estimated timeframe is likely to be extended due to the disruption being caused by COVID-19. Second, except for limited circumstances, once you file for divorce, your divorce cannot typically be finalized until the Case Management Date, which is approximately 90-100 days after you first file for divorce. During the first 90-100 days of a divorce case, unless you need to file pendente lite Motions to address temporary financial or parenting issues while the case is pending, your case is will likely be uneventful. Typically, during this time discovery requests are exchanged, Financial Affidavits are drafted, and Parenting Plans are negotiated. The good news is that those actions often do not require face time and are done remotely. So even while you cannot go to Court at this time, you can still work on moving your divorce matter forward. Further, it may even be easier to gather discovery materials or work on your Financial Affidavit from home as opposed to attending to these sensitive matters while at the office or traveling.
Finally, based on the early reports out of China, it appears there is an increase in divorce filings once the quarantine was lifted. If true, this may simply be people deferring filing due to the quarantine or people filing due to being quarantined together! Regardless of the reason, Courts in Connecticut will likely be busier than ever once they return to normal operations. Thus, only if you are ready to file for divorce, now may be the time to start the process.
Can I still file Motions in my pending Divorce Matter during the COVID-19 Quarantine?
Yes. Since the Courts in Connecticut are still open as of March 17, 2020, this means you can still file any Motions in your pending divorce action. Except for those matters which fall into the “Priority 1 Business Functions” category, no one can tell you with absolute certainty when your Motions will be heard by the Court. However, depending on the specific facts of your case, there may still be a benefit to filing those Motions now as opposed to waiting.
If you are experiencing a substantial change in financial circumstances due to the economic impact of COVID-19, whether it be a loss of employment, a reduction in commission income, or a loss of revenue if you are a business owner, you will want to consult an attorney to discuss your options. Although a substantial change in financial circumstances will not likely warrant the filing of an Ex-Parte Motion, if appropriate, you may want to file a regular Motion for Modification now. The benefit to filing now and then having your spouse or ex-spouse served with the Motion, is that the Court then has the discretion to modify your financial orders retroactively to the date of service. This enables you to preserve your claim even while the Court is not currently scheduling financial Motions.
Also, keep in mind that unless and until an Order is modified by the Court, the existing Order remains in place and you must still follow your obligations. In other words, even if you have experienced a substantial change in circumstances, you cannot engage in self-help and voluntarily stop paying your support obligations. If you fail to do so, your spouse or ex-spouse may file a Motion for Contempt against you. Simply filing a Motion for Modification does not insulate you from a Motion for Contempt, however depending on the reasons for filing the Modification it could mitigate the impact of the Motion for Contempt. Further, as mentioned above, filing and serving the Motion for Modification provides the Court with discretion to enter retroactive orders. Since every Order and case are different, you will want to consult with an attorney to discuss your specific options.
Further, since the already busy Court system will inevitably become busier once it resumes normal operations, it may make sense to “get in line now” as opposed to waiting until things return to “normal.” Before the foregoing measures being enacted by the Court, it would typically take 3-4 weeks from the time you filed a non-emergency Motion until it was scheduled on the Short Calendar. No one knows for sure how long the wait will be once Court resumes normal operations, but it will likely be much longer than the typical 3-4 week wait.
I am worried about my children’s safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, can I keep them from my ex-spouse?
It depends. Every Parenting Plan is different, and your specific circumstances are likely different as well. Similarly, to Financial Orders, Orders related to Parenting Time and Custody must be followed unless and until the same are modified by the Court or you and your child’s other parent reach an agreement. If you have concerns about your child’s safety, generally it is good practice to first reach out to the other parent to discuss your concerns and see if you can reach an agreement that is in your child’s best interest. If you cannot agree, you should consult with your attorney to discuss your options. Further, you should consult with your child’s doctor and follow the advice of the doctor as well as the emergency declarations issued by the government. Further, if you share joint legal custody with your child’s other parent, you likely have an obligation to keep the other parent informed as to your child’s health status as well as the scheduling of any medical appointments or if you believe the situation warrants a visit to the emergency room.
Your attorney cannot advise you to disregard Court Orders, but if you have genuine concerns and your child’s other parent is not in agreement with you on how to handle the situation, you should also talk to your attorney about the consequences that a Court may impose if you fail to follow Court Orders. Also, if you and your child’s other parent reach an agreement, it is advisable to memorialize that agreement in writing (text or email would qualify) to try and protect yourself if the other parent later changes his or her mind.
Finally, if your child’s other parent desires to travel with your child during the pandemic and you do not agree, you should consult with your attorney immediately about filing an emergency Motion if you genuinely believe your child’s health or safety is at issue. As previously stated, ex-parte or emergency parenting Motions fall within the “Priority 1 Business Functions” category that the Court is still scheduling.
How does my child’s school being closed impact my Parenting Plan?
As everyone is navigating this new world with schools being closed for an indefinite period and many parents working remotely from home, your regular Parenting Plan is likely being affected. If possible, the first thing you should do is reach out to your child’s other parent to try and coordinate your new schedules to see if you can reach an agreement as to what is best for your children. If you cannot agree, or if you have questions as to interpreting your Parenting Plan you should contact an attorney for advice. Further, if your Parenting Plan is vague and/or no longer applicable (i.e. “The Mother shall have Parenting Time from after school on Wednesday until drop off at school on Friday.”) you may want to consult with your attorney to discuss various options to address Parenting Time during this time of uncertainly because an experienced Family Law attorney should be able to provide you with alternatives that have worked for other families.
Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie LLC, the largest matrimonial and family law firm in Connecticut with offices in Westport and Greenwich, remains committed to working diligently by whatever means are necessary to protect you and to advance your case during these unusual times, while also taking all recommended precautions. We are able to perform our services remotely and are able to host telephonic or virtual consultations, meetings, or mediations. If you have any questions about the impact of COVID-19 or the Coronavirus on your pending or potential divorce action, do not hesitate to call one of our experienced Family Law attorneys.