As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty has issued a series of orders since the beginning of March that have created a seismic shift in the way the courts operate during what Beatty calls “the extraordinary challenges” that the state’s judicial branch now faces.
One of his latest orders came on April 6 and included special guidance to Family Court attorneys. Judges can now grant uncontested divorces without holding a hearing, as long as they have written testimony from both parties and a corroborating witness. Consent orders on all matters, regardless of whether they were filed or heard prior to or after the declaration of the public health emergency, can be issued without a hearing. Judges can also issue temporary orders without a hearing.
Jim McLaren, a family law attorney with McLaren & Lee in Columbia, said the Judicial Branch is doing a “magnificent job” in handling the current crisis, and many of the new practices now in place, in family courts as well as criminal and civil courts, could be good practice for the future.
“Good things sometimes come from a crisis and allow us to operate in a much more efficient and much more streamlined way,” McLaren said. “Much of this may become permanent once this crisis is over and save a lot of costs to get things done.”
Yet right now, family law attorneys say that the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is creating unprecedented challenges for them and their clients, raising scenarios that would have been unheard of two months ago.
“It’s literally a case of first impression because we have not been faced with these issues before,” said Ken Peck, an attorney with Peck Family Law in Charleston.
Peck said that his firm is hearing from a variety of clients and potential clients regarding child custody, with parents wanting to know whether they have to hand their child over to the other parent because of concerns about their health. He’s also hearing from divorced people who’ve been laid off or had their wages cut and want to make adjustments in the alimony and child support that they pay, along with people who were planning to separate from their spouses, but the turmoil that COVID-19 has wrought has halted their plans.
March and April are the peak of what some refer to as “the after-Christmas sale for divorces”: people “play nice” during the holidays, then tend to wait a couple of months before proceeding with splitting from their partners, Peck said. But now, many have cancelled those plans.
“They are realizing that they need a divorce, but they have no place to go, they can’t rent another place, they might lose their job, and they are counting every dollar,” Peck said.
Lauren Quinn, a family law attorney with Ward and Smith in New Bern, North Carolina, said her firm has heard from an overwhelming number of people who have concerns about custody exchanges and children sharing households during COVID-19.
“Many are legitimately concerned about how to balance the competing interests of keeping their children safe while complying with a court order,” Quinn said. “We are seeing many instances where the parents are unable to agree and, in those instances, the order in place is what must be followed. We can’t tell our clients what they want to hear; we have to tell them you have to get the other side to agree, follow the custody order, and hope for the best.”
Some parents are arguing over what is still appropriate for their children while staying at their respective homes and what’s currently off-limits, where one parent may be still having playdates or “taking too many trips to the grocery store,” said Mariana Godwin of Barefoot Family Law in Raleigh.
The key is advising them to find practical solutions to ensure that the children and both families are safe while respecting the relationships between the children and their shared families, Quinn said.
Godwin has a client who recently returned home from a trip to Disney World with her children. Soon after, she became sick and was quarantined with her children for two weeks. (A test came back negative for COVID-19). She shared custody with the children’s father, so when their quarantine was up, the children stayed with their father for two weeks to make up for their lost time with him.
“It was a great show of parenting,” Godwin said. “Parents can work together so parents aren’t missing out on time with the kids because of these unforeseen circumstances.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw