Divorce and a Far-Off Day in Court

Divorce and a Far-Off Day in Court

This post title is stolen from the New York Times, and its article (published on May 8) is pretty relevant to the state of Arizona courts and divorces right now. The article can be found online here, but for those without a NY Times subscription to read it, it’s summarized as:

  1. Courts are more difficult to get to right now. In Maricopa County, the public can again access to the courts, but only to file new matters; deliver or pick up certain documents; or participate in a video court proceeding for emergency matters including Orders of Protection (done within the courthouse, but by video). At present, there is no way to file an original divorce (or similar) proceeding online, but once a case is file with the court, online filing is available for almost all later documents.
  2. Mediation for family law matters is still available. Some mediators are doing in-person mediation with distancing, and others are doing online dispute resolution (ODR) using Zoom or GoToMeeting.
  3. Business valuations are going to be upended by the pandemic. How business values and assets are affected by the pandemic won’t be known for months. If a divorce is pending now, the valuation can’t wait for a couple of years to see what happens with the value, at least not unless both parties agree to the delay.
  4. Life insurance to guarantee a spouse’s payments might be more difficult to get with coronavirus.
  5. Parenting cases remain difficult, and parents who are misbehaving or ignoring court orders will likely face penalties in the future, but when courts will open back up and have time (after a backlog) to start considering those penalties remains unknown.
  6. Online court proceedings are being quickly set up by court systems, including Maricopa County, but things are lost in the virtual transmission of evidence. Documents and evidence are harder to submit to the court, and technology problems generally make the proceedings last longer (when time is already precious and too short in any family court case).
  7. And finally, existing court orders for child support and spousal maintenance may no longer be workable because financial things have changed drastically. While those orders for payment remain in effect until someone moves to modify the orders, when a modification is filed, the courts are going to be incredibly receptive to reducing payments based on the loss of a job or a drastically reduced income. (Note: simply stopping or reducing your payments on your own is NOT an option and will cost you dearly in the future.)

Everything to do with divorce and the courts is complicated by not knowing how long the present circumstances will exist, how long family cases will be attempted by online court processes, and when anyone can expect to set foot in a courtroom for a “normal” hearing again. On May 8, 2020, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Arizona issued another Administrative Order (one of several issued during the pandemic) stating that Arizona court systems may begin transitioning to in-person proceedings starting June 1.

This doesn’t mean that all court proceedings will be in-person, at the courthouse, starting on June 1, only that in-person proceedings are permitted (they’ve been prohibited since late March). The AO goes on to provide:

Proceedings in all Arizona appellate, superior, justice, juvenile, and municipal courts . . . may be held by teleconferencing or video conferencing, consistent with core constitutional rights. . . . Judicial leadership should limit in-person contact as much as possible by using available technologies, including alternative means of filing, teleconferencing, video conferencing, and use of email and text messages to reasonably ensure the health and safety of all participants.

This language means that individual judges will be allowed to conduct proceedings by video conference (or telephone) as they see fit, and specific guidelines are included in that Administrative Order recognizing that cattle-call hearings (where many different cases wait in the same courtroom to be called) are prohibited and social distancing is still required in the courthouse and courtrooms.

The AO also cautions that continuances shall be liberally granted and accommodations made for any court participant who is at a risk of COVID or who reports symptoms or exposure.

What all of this means to family law cases is that while the court had to take a hiatus of just over 60 days (from late March through May), during which time it could basically handle only emergencies, the court is coming back. The court has adapted, shifted, and pivoted as much as possible to return to its full complement of services, including non-emergency trials and administrative proceedings like child support conferences and Conciliation Services, while keeping a close eye on safety concerns, as more and more information becomes available.

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