As the country watched coronavirus cases spiking this spring, family law attorneys were watching another spike – in people wanting to file for divorce.
“We basically shut down our practice voluntarily. I think my last day in the office was March 13th. I would say a week after that business just started booming,’’ said divorce attorney Michelle Gervais, a partner at Blank Rome in Tampa, FL. “I mean an astronomical climb.”
Internet searches for divorce information reportedly rose over 30% in the spring. Gervais doesn’t know about actual filings nationwide, but she knows her divorce caseload has doubled.
“I don’t have access to other firms’ numbers, but I can certainly tell you that my business is at least 50% up from last year at this time.”
Gervais said she thinks the numbers could go even higher.
“It’s going to be difficult to really know because you have some states where you couldn’t file,” she explained. “So suddenly you are going to have this uptick in July, for instance. Is that because of COVID or is that because for five months they couldn’t file cases in that state? States like New York, where they don’t have electronic filings, during the shutdown they couldn’t file a new matter for several months. I look at New York and I wonder how backlogged they’re going to be and how long it’s going to take for them to catch up. At least in Florida, we’ve had a ton of filings but we’ve never not been able to file a new case.”
So why the huge increase in divorce in the midst of a pandemic? Gervais is convinced it’s caused by the stay-at-home orders.
“I definitely think it’s the impetus,” Gervais said. “Look, we already know the specifics about marriage outside of the pandemic (the average divorce rate for first-time marriages has long hovered around 50%). When you add in being forced to spend 90 to 95% of your time with your spouse instead of, maybe, 50%, it certainly puts it on blast. I think you realize either you really love this person and enjoy spending the time and having more time for the family, or you realize life is too short and I need to get out. I really believe it has helped a lot of folks make decisions.”
Some decisions postponed
Interestingly, the pandemic shutdown actually slowed that decision-making process for some couples.
“I would get calls from people who wanted to go forward with the divorce and then suddenly colleges sent their kids home,” Gervais said. “I would then get a call saying, you know ‘now my 21-year-old son or daughter is going to be home and staying with us. I think I need to put that on hold.’ So there have been different impacts because of this.”
The court system is clearly feeling the impact of coronavirus on divorce.
“There’s added stress on the system,” Gervais said. “In Florida the courts, the judges, have really done a great job of learning technology. Even people who you might not think would be inclined to learn technology, they’ve really made a go at it and it really made our courts as seamless as possible.”
That doesn’t mean divorce hearings are operating exactly like they did pre-pandemic.
“Some of our hearings take a little bit longer virtually,’’ Gervais said. “There is more caution when you are submitting exhibits and you can’t talk over each other because the Zoom link will actually bleep it out and the court reporter can’t hear.’’
Coronavirus-related issues also pop up when it comes to following through on separations and divorces. Child visitation, for instance, can be a challenge in a pandemic.
“You’ve had a lot of judges trying to follow the CDC guidelines,” Gervais said. “If a parent has to travel for work and has no choice, how does that parent take all the precautions in the world, including getting a COVID test? Testing has been delayed and will I get the results back in time? Then, in different states there are quarantine requirements. It depends on the site you were traveling to or from and whether or not you are able to get a COVID test and how soon you can get the test results. It’s also dependent on the judge. It’s very judge specific. The judge makes those kinds of decisions if the parties can’t.”
Gervais said even when the threat of coronavirus abates, the changes in divorce court proceedings will most likely remain.
“Litigation will still continue in person, depending on what kind of case it is. Certain cases will require that,” she said. “But I do think the courts, at some point, are going to start giving options. I really believe that the access to justice is going to continue to be even more available than it ever was before because of COVID. I think that’s going to be one of the major benefits. Let’s say you travel for work or you work out of state. Right now you can still participate in your case from where you are. We don’t have to put cases on hold. You can have access to the lawyers that you want throughout the state because they can be in any court right now via Zoom. They don’t have to worry about traveling.”
In the meantime, Gervais said she is monitoring another pandemic-related spike in family law work. And this one may also be attributable to stay-at-home orders.
“I have a lot of paternity cases right now. Babies are about to be born in about three or four months. The relationship ended, but for those first couple of months of COVID, there was a lot of happiness going on.”