One year after it first reached our shores, the COVID-19 pandemic has left the United States battered, both medically and financially, not to mention emotionally. The changes brought about by the virus’ upheaval — once thought to be merely temporary — will likely become permanent, or at least long-lasting. Such an incredible amount of disruption in such a short amount of time has had a significant effect on America’s families, in some cases bringing them closer together, and in others driving them farther apart. In this blog post, an Alpharetta family lawyer looks back on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on family law and what it may mean for the future.
Higher Divorce Rates
In September 2020, it was reported that divorce rates for the period of March to June were 34% higher than a year earlier. 31% of the couples surveyed said that lockdowns had caused irreparable harm to their relationships. The data also showed a startling increase in the percentage of newlywed couples (those who had been married within the previous five months or less) seeking divorce — 20% in 2020, compared to 11% in 2019. Nationally, southern states had the highest number of divorces during the pandemic.
There are several reasons why the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns have had this effect. For marriages that were already unstable or domestic violence was an issue, lockdowns likely increased tensions and pushed couples over the brink. Higher stress levels generally equate to less intimacy in relationships, increasing alienation. And COVID-19-related job loss has resulted in significant financial strain for many families, leading to increased tension. However, there may be a silver lining. With time, many of the pandemic’s sudden changes are less disruptive and have even become the “new normal,” making them easier for couples to cope with.
Disrupted Child Custody and Visitation Arrangements
Child custody and child visitation agreements govern the relationships between a child and his or her divorced parents. As legally enforceable documents, they must be followed, and failure to do so can lead to being held in contempt of court, fines, and even jail time. The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns have complicated many child custody and visitation arrangements, as some parents may believe that the lockdowns exempt them from having to follow their agreements. Or, in some cases, perhaps one parent feels that the other parent is not taking the pandemic seriously enough and refuses to allow the child to spend time with that parent. However, neither lockdowns nor flippancy about the seriousness of COVID-19 are sufficient as justification to violate child custody and visitation arrangements.
Governor Kemp even issued an executive order on this subject in April, stating that his earlier lockdown order would not abridge any judicial order, specifically custodial arrangements. Regardless of the law or the governor’s executive order, many parents still agree to informally modify their custody and visitation arrangements and likely will continue to do so, thereby depriving many children of the love and affection of both parents. If you are considering modifications to your child custody or visitation arrangements, please contact an Alpharetta family lawyer who can advise you on the correct way to do so.
Lapses in Child Support
The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the loss of an estimated 22 million jobs. Some industries, such as hospitality, food service, entertainment, and travel, were hit particularly hard. Such economic devastation has caused many unemployed individuals to be unable to pay child support, putting children and custodial parents at risk. While job loss may seem like a good reason to stop paying child support, it does not absolve the parent from their continued obligation to pay under their child support agreement. Failure to pay child support can result in several consequences, including wage garnishment, confiscation of tax refunds, being held in contempt of court, liens being placed on personal property, and even being arrested.
While there is no comprehensive data on the amount of child support that has gone unpaid or the number of parents who have missed payments since the start of the pandemic, a previous study showed that, on average, a 5% increase in unemployment was associated with a 30-32% decrease in the probability of complying with child support obligations. The same likely holds true now and, until the unemployment rate drops back to its pre-COVID levels, it is likely to stay that way.
Lapses in Alimony
Like child support, an individual’s ability to pay alimony depends upon his or her financial resources, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a severe toll on many individuals’ personal finances. However, even with job loss, alimony agreements are legally enforceable unless the court modifies them. The payor spouse may be able to obtain an alimony modification if there is a change in income or financial status. Given the extraordinary job losses throughout the pandemic, it is likely that the courts will continue to see an influx of alimony modification requests.
Family Plans Put on Hold
COVID-19 lockdowns have limited access to attorneys and the courts, which has resulted in the postponement of significant life events, such as marriage and adoption, for many. While the COVID-19 pandemic has increased divorces, it has decreased marriages. According to the American Family Survey, 7% of unmarried Americans aged 55 or younger reported that they were planning to postpone their weddings, likely due to an inability to get married in a traditional service with a reception. There is also evidence that the pandemic is slowing down the adoption process due to court closures and work stoppages, leaving many foster children in limbo.
Contact an Alpharetta Family Lawyer for Help with Family Law Issues during the COVID-19 Pandemic
If you are struggling with a family law issue during the COVID-19 pandemic — whether it is a divorce, child custody, support, or alimony — you should consider speaking to an attorney who can advise you on the best course of action to take. To get started, please contact an Alpharetta family lawyer at Hait & Kuhn by using our online form or calling us at either of our metro Atlanta locations: Alpharetta (770-517-0045) or Woodstock (678-888-0198).