COVID-19 and Family Court Closures: San Diego County Update
If the best part of your marriage was not seeing your spouse for more than a few hours a day or even a week at a time, this past 5 to 6 weeks of shelter-in-place orders and social isolation from friends and colleagues—not to mention job losses and parenting challenges—may have accelerated the end of your marriage. You are probably wondering what you can do given the courts are closed.
Family courts are shut down here in San Diego County, hearing only emergency matters. While officially the San Diego Court website lists May 1st as its potential re-opening date, the legal community has been informed that they should not expect courts to reopen until after the Memorial Day Weekend (May 26th), and that doing so will be contingent upon our progress in flattening the curve as well as Governor Newsom’s executive orders governing the roll-out of how and when California gets back to work.
Even when family court does re-open, they are planning for a soft opening which will look more like a dimmer being slowly turned up rather than a total flick of the light switch. It will take a significant amount of time to recover from the backlog of cases they have to reschedule and the expected increase in both new cases and requests to modify existing support orders due to job losses.
The courts may be closed but you can both start and complete your divorce process relatively quickly if you choose to mediate. I am hopeful that this pandemic will generate a paradigm shift in the way couples view their options when it comes to how they approach their divorce. With job and stock market losses, couples will need to be more cost-conscious than ever. And having parented in a very demanding situation, some couples may even have an easier time negotiating their parent plans. This pandemic may also lead some to make more risk adverse decision in order to reduce stress. As someone with first-hand experience in family court, I can testify to the fact that litigation is not only a gamble but also a very costly and stressful way to end a marriage. Mediation offers control, certainty, speed, and is by far the less costly option. It also allows separating couples the ability to focus on the best outcome for the whole family, all of which reduces the stress of the divorce process.
If you start with a mediator now you can do everything that is needed to complete your divorce except file the actual paperwork. Your mediator will prepare the divorce pleadings, and once the courts do open, file them with the court and then serve the other spouse in his or her office.
While you are waiting for the courts to re-open you can work on your required financial disclosures, negotiate your parent plan if you have children, determine child and temporary spousal support, and allocate all the assets and debts you have identified and valued.
None of these steps need the court’s time. In a mediated divorce your negotiated agreement becomes a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) and the judge will sign the judgment with your MSA attached, making your negotiated agreement the terms of your divorce.
You cannot be divorced until 6 months after the Respondent is served in California but when you choose mediation there is a possibility you will actually be divorced that quickly if you so choose, even given the enormous backlog the courts will be facing.
Laura McGee is an experienced and legally trained divorce mediator. She offers flat-fee mediation services and is located in the Village of Carlsbad. Laura is currently working with couples in San Diego County via Zoom video conferencing. You can schedule a complimentary consultation with Laura from her website to find out more.