By Mary Ellen Flynn, Esq., 301.563.6685
The coronavirus pandemic has caused much confusion and questions in the family law world, especially regarding separation and marital settlement agreements. The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly created extenuating circumstances, and being fully informed about your rights under your separation or marital settlement agreement is essential. Below are potential issues that may arise in your separation or marital settlement agreement, and some suggestions to resolve them.
- Whatever you do, never breach the terms of your Custody and Parenting agreement. Although visitation and custody are always modifiable, your current agreement remains fully enforceable, even during a pandemic. One parent cannot unilaterally modify a custody or parenting agreement without first agreeing with the other parent or going to court seeking a modification. If one parent violates a custody order or parenting agreement, there can be adverse consequences. Suppose the parents can’t agree on modifying the terms of the agreement. In that case, they should first try to resolve their differences with the help of a parenting coordinator or through the collaborative law process or mediation to avoid court and expensive litigation. Although during the pandemic, the collaborative meetings or the sessions with a parenting coordinator or mediator are sometimes being conducted remotely by video or phone, they are nonetheless useful tools.
- The marital settlement agreement is still enforceable even if the court hasn’t granted you a divorce. In stating the obvious, the coronavirus pandemic has caused significant delays in the courts. Even if you have a marital settlement agreement signed and ready to be sent to the Judge, a delay in obtaining an official divorce is likely. However, depending on the terms of your agreement, it is still enforceable despite the court’s delay in granting you a divorce. However, if you are in the middle of negotiating and working out the terms of your marital settlement agreement, take into account specific provisions that may only trigger upon the entry of a Judgment of Absolute Divorce—for instance, putting the marital home up for sale, or dividing retirement assets. If your agreement has a provision that isn’t effective until the entry of your Divorce, you may be waiting longer than you expected. Speak with your attorney about modifying any provision that has the entry of Divorce as a triggering event. If you have already signed your marital settlement agreement and still have not been able to obtain a Judgment of Absolute Divorce due to a court delay, continue following your Agreement no-matter-what, or consult with an attorney if you have any questions.
- You must continue paying your agreed-upon child support and alimony provisions. Many people are experiencing job loss or a decrease in income. Review your marital settlement agreement and see under what circumstances is alimony modifiable. If alimony is non-modifiable, consult with an attorney to discuss your options. If, however, you are amicable with your former spouse, discuss your situation and suggest an agreement that allows you to temporarily pay less alimony until your salary is back up to the status quo. Contrary to alimony, in Maryland, child support is always modifiable if there is a material change in circumstances. If you can’t work-out an Agreement with the other parent, the first step is to file a petition to modify the current child support order. It’s important to file this petition as soon as possible because your final child support order will relate-back to the filing date. To get your child support modified, you must prove to the court that you have a material change in circumstances, i.e., your income has substantially decreased. Consult with an attorney if you have questions regarding your income loss and its effect on making your child support payments.
- Parenting time risk and response protocols may need to be renegotiated. These protocols are especially important if any of your children are the “at-risk” population, such as if they have asthma or an autoimmune disease. Unfortunately, the type of occupation a parent has may affect how often one parent can see the child. Suppose one parent is a front-line worker, or simply has a greater chance of exposure to the coronavirus due to their occupation. In that case, it’s essential to discuss renegotiating your parenting agreement to ensure optimal health and safety precautions. This type of issue is an entirely new parenting factor that judges have to consider, and the entire legal community is unsure how courts will handle these types of problems. However, the bright-line rule is the court will always make its decision based on what is in the child’s best interest. If your child is part of the “at-risk” population and one parent is a front-line worker while the other parent is not, modification of a parenting agreement is possible. Adress these concerns as soon as possible. If feasible, come up with an agreement between you and the other parent that implements safety precautions, such as wearing masks and avoiding large groups of people.
Andalman & Flynn, P.C. serves clients throughout Maryland and the District of Columbia, offering compassionate, quality service and results-driven representation across a broad range of legal areas. With a concentration on disability benefits law and family law, the firm focuses on cases that impact the rights of everyone, and they are there for clients when responsive legal help is most critical. For more information about Andalman & Flynn, please visit our website or call 301.563.6685.