Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.
At the time of this writing, there are over 85,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New Jersey, with over 4,200 deaths attributed to the pandemic. This presents a lot of difficulties for families in New Jersey, and many people want to know how Covid-19 will affect divorce and custody issues. Below, we will go over some of the ways that New Jersey courts and attorneys are dealing with the effects of the outbreak on these Family Law cases.
The first major issue that I noticed in my practice is the issue of visitation and parenting time during the pandemic. There are a lot of parents who want to exercise their parenting time and some time may have gone by since they last saw their children. Understandably, many custodial parents are concerned about letting their children leave the house, especially while a stay-at-home order is in effect. Both types of parents may not know what to do and how to resolve such a dispute.
Unfortunately, this is a difficult situation and there is no simple answer. There may not even be a “right” answer as the courts have not provided any specific guidance that us lawyers can point to. There is no law that says that existing parenting time orders are suspended during the pandemic. And the governor’s stay-at-home order really does not prevent a non-custodial parent from bringing a child back and forth between homes. Having said that, a court could always change a parenting time order, temporarily, to suspend or alter the parenting time arrangements during the pandemic, based on the best interests of the child. How a judge would look at an individual case is very fact-specific. For example, if the non-custodial parent works in a field where they are exposed to Covid-19 patients regularly is going to be a different case from a parent who has been in isolation for the past month. Therefore, if you are having an issue it is best to discuss it with your attorney.
The second major issue is how courts are handling filings during this period when the courts are essentially closed to almost everyone. At the time of this writing, unless there is a true emergency you will not be allowed in the courthouse and you will not be able to see a judge. At this point, all filing is done electronically and court staff will have to do their initial review of it from their homes. This has caused some delay in cases getting heard. And when a case is going to be heard by the judge, there will not be an in-person hearing. Cases that normally would have in-person hearings will instead be heard via phone or video appearance. Additionally, for divorce cases where a mediator would normally be involved, we are seeing these go forward during scheduled Zoom video conferences. This is another complication that you should discuss with your attorney, if you need to file an application.