The court shutdown in New Jersey was unprecedented. The need to save lives took precedence over everything else. But now, with the state slowly reopening, the legal community must confront the complications that have arisen from the shutdown.
I am a family law litigator. In family law, real-world events can have massive effects on our cases. An economic shock means financial changes; school closures mean custody issues. Procedural dates and deadlines have been greatly disrupted.
Clients want answers. I came up with three questions I believe need to be answered as we move forward.
How will support arrears be handled? In New Jersey, there is practically no defense to child support or alimony arrears. If you owe it, you owe it. The sole exception is that courts are empowered to modify arrears if the paying party filed a motion to modify their support obligations before accruing their arrears.
Given how many people have become unemployed since the shutdown commenced, and thus are likely to have missed payments, figuring out how to deal with arrears will be necessary.
Will the virus be a basis to modify parenting time? The coronavirus is not leaving us any time soon, that much is clear. Even when New Jersey reopens, until there is a vaccine, the risk of infection will remain. For some parents, this will mean continuing difficulties with custody situations that pose specific risks. Is there a scenario in which the very existence and threat of coronavirus is sufficient to modify custody based on a change in circumstances?
The answer focuses on your ability to show any specific threat of harm to your child.
Coronavirus is not an excuse to put on indefinite hold all parenting time absent “serious risk of harm.”
Are divorces starting over? Divorce litigation can continue for many months, and involve professional appraisals of homes, businesses, pensions, and other assets. New Jersey and our country just experienced an economic upheaval that is impossible to understate in terms of its severity. For those who have been proceeding with divorce based on rough agreement as to the values of assets (or at least with two dueling appraisals), does this mean a total reset? Are many types of marital assets now effectively re-appraised?
Businesses are the most obvious problems here. How will appraisers determine future cash flow on businesses that are closed indefinitely, or that may open and close again?
Homes, too, may be an issue. We don’t yet know what coronavirus will do to real estate values. But if you’re a spouse buying out your soon-to-be-ex’s interest in a piece of marital real estate, do you really want that buyout amount to be based on a pre-coronavirus appraisal?
New Jersey’s court system has done a fantastic job of responding to the challenges and complications imposed by coronavirus and the lockdown. But now comes the aftermath and the clean-up. Family law, with its dynamic nature, is going to be especially problematic. We need to do the best we can.
Ronald Lieberman, Esq. is a shareholder and partner at Adinolfi, Lieberman, Burick, Falkenstein, Roberto & Molotsky, PA. He has dedicated his career to working with people to resolve their important family law issues throughout New Jersey. In the wake of the COVID19 public health crisis, families face unique complications in resolving contentious issues. Our office stands ready to assist.