A Conversation with Martin Butcher of Jacobowitz & Gubits
- During the coronavirus pandemic, co-parenting requires an extra degree of thoughtfulness and flexibility. The goal for parents should be to provide stability and normality for children in an unstable environment.
On March 16, the New York State court system was closed to all but essential functions and certain emergency applications as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. This effectively suspended all divorce actions in the Supreme Court—all appearances, motions, and trials were adjourned without a new date. In the Family Court, existing Orders of Protection were extended until the Court resumes normal operation. (New applications for Orders of Protection will still be accepted.) While a necessary public health measure, putting the courts on pause placed parents and families going through divorce proceedings in legal limbo. We recently spoke with attorney Martin Butcher about the difficulties the coronavirus pandemic is posing for people going through a divorce, or those co-parenting with a former partner or spouse during this unprecedented crisis.
Martin Butcher is senior counsel at Walden-based firm Jacobowitz & Gubits and practices matrimonial and family law, and bankruptcy.
The Courts Are on Hold
“The courts are closed except for essential proceedings and divorces are not essential proceedings,” says Butcher. “In divorce proceedings, we have had to put everything on hold, unless we’re able to work collaboratively with the others side—that’s happening a little bit.” But without judges, no actions can be finalized. “We can negotiate settlement proposals, but we only go so far. We can’t file divorce papers.”
Providing Stability Amidst Uncertainty for the Kids
With the courts no longer available to resolve disputes, it will become increasingly important for co-parents to use common sense and flexibility to minimize the impact of this crisis on your children.
“We’re counseling our clients to be reasonable and sensible in how they deal with the other party, whether it’s co-parenting or child support maintenance,” says Butcher. Existing custody orders and parenting schedules are still in effect, but adjustments might need to be made as work schedules change or to address child care issues. “The goal should be providing stability and normality to kids in an unstable environment,” says Butcher. “They’ve lost access to friends, school, and relatives.” This extends to maintaining a routine and structure for children during this period of profound upheaval. This should include a home-schooling routine at both houses so children are reminded that this is not just an early summer break.
Limited Interactions & Exchanges
For co-parents, during the lockdown period, it may become more appropriate to follow the custody schedule for summer breaks, rather than for the school year. “Most access agreements have provisions for access during the school year and for access during the summer,” says Butcher. The frequent exchanges of the school year are not ideal at a time when we need to limit contact. “In the summer, one party generally has the kids for a week and then they exchange them for a week,” says Butcher. Finding ways to limit interactions—and getting kids to wash their hands following an exchange—should be goals for co-parents.
Have a Plan in Place in Case of Illness
Having a conversation with your co-parent to agree on a plan of action in the event of illness is recommended. “Parents need to put a plan in place ahead of time in case one of them contracts COVID-19,” says Butcher. “Who’s going to care for the kids if you’re hospitalized?” Likewise, if you or your co-parent is quarantined, your children should remain away for their well-being, even if that means they stay with the other parent for the full quarantine period.
Butcher also notes that your plan should avoid jeopardizing the health of someone in an at-risk group, such as a grandparent. Seniors are at higher risk from the coronavirus, and they might not be a viable option for taking on parenting duties.
Rise in Domestic Violence
According to an April 6 article in the New York Times, movement restrictions are making violence in homes more frequent, severe, and dangerous. This follows the pattern that whenever families spend more time together — Christmas, summer vacations — domestic violence increases. If you or a loved one is experiencing physical or verbal abuse, you should still call the police and contact an attorney to obtain an Order of Protection.
When the courts do reopen, there will be a backlog of cases that will need to be dealt with. Scheduling hearings for months of cases put on hold by the coronavirus will take time. “The court system was overloaded before this happened,” says Butcher. “The courts aren’t going to open up until at least May, possibly June. A lot of this stuff is going to take a long time to sort out. It’s really going to have a knock-on effect to cases.” All parties can do is wait it out, hopefully gracefully. “Patience is going to be required on everyone’s part,” says Butcher.
Source: Chronogram (emphasis by SD LAW*)
* SD Law, aka Simon Dippenaar & Associates Inc., is a law firm of specialised divorce attorneys based and serving clients in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. If you need help, please contact Simon on email@example.com or 086 099 5146.