We are truly living in unprecedented times. There is no simple playbook to turn to if you are in one of these situations:
You recently decided to separate and then the COVID-19 self-quarantine and/or the financial consequences have held you in place.
Your marriage was on the brink of collapse and this forced time together has clarified that your marriage is beyond repair.
Most courthouses are closed, hearing only emergency family matters. Here in San Diego County there is a tentative plan to reopen family court May 1st. Yet, given the high probability that we will need to remain socially distant through the end of May, it’s not looking likely that you will have access to the courts for another 6 to 7 weeks. So that raises the question: What can I do to move forward with my divorce while we are under one roof? Here are 4 tips to help you navigate this time:
1. Establish a date of separation.
There is lots of confusion about what a date of separation is, and why it even matters. Here in California, the date of separation is a subjective test. You do not need to physically separate. If one spouse communicates to the other that the marriage is over then a date of separation has occurred. However, if there is a reconcilliation even after such a declaration, you may not be separated after all. Your behavior must be consistent with your declaration.
Why might the date of seperation matter? Here in California, we are a community property state. A declaration that your marriage is over could be an end to the community. This has potential financial consequences for both of you, some of which may not be intended.
Living together while "separated" can lead to a disagreement over what your date of your separation actally is. If you wait until you can file your petition for divorce with the court to declare your date of separation and your spouse does not agree, you will have a costly legal argument over something that could be made clear now. If you are working with a mediator you can agree now on your date of separation.
2. Identify all of your assets and debts.
As part of your divorce you are going to have provide one another with full financial disclosures. Why wait to do that? Do a complete accounting of what you have and share it with one another now. Not only will this save you a bundle in unnecessary subpoenas and formal discovery, but it usually reduces conflict simply because lack of financial transparency with one another in a marriage is often a primary source of conflict. I even have a video series that walks you through what's required to do your own financial disclosure.
3. Negotiate personal time and space within your shared home.
You may be stuck at home together but there are ways to establish fresh boundaries that will give you each breathing room. Set up a schedule so that you leave the house for walks or groceries or other essential services at separate times. Build work time into your schedule (if you are working from home) and/or quiet time, so that the other spouse knows you are on “do not disturb.” If you have children at home, plan separate parent-child time activities to reduce the need for togetherness and even schedule chores and tasks to keep the home as peaceful as possible.
If you are in a lot of distress, perhaps you’ve uncovered an affair, or perhaps emergency funds you thought were in reserve have been squandered. Maybe you have children with special needs and home schooling and parenting with your soon to be ex-spouse is particularly challenging. Make it your goal to manage your emotions rather than those of your spouse. Focus on keeping the home safe. Reach out for therapeutic support or consider divorce coaching to help you map a plan to leave this marriage without ending up both emotionally and financially broke. Most therapists and coaches are working through this pandemic using video conferencing. You may need to socially isolate, but you are not alone.
4. Seek out professional support and guidance.
The court may be closed but most divorce mediators are still working with couples virtually, which means not only do you have access to professional help, you do not have to delay the process of negotiating the terms of your current separation in place.
So many couples assume they need to hire attorneys and get orders from a judge to start their divorce process, but that’s just not the case anymore. Most couples who mediate are self-represented. The mediator files all their paperwork and they never step foot in the courthouse. Everything they negotiate becomes an order of the court once it is finalized into their Marital Settlement Agreement. That does not mean you cannot hire a divorce attorney to work with you in a consulting role; it just means you do not have to wait for the courthouses to open again to negotiate the terms of your divorce.
The steps you take today to manage your divorce will help to make your process less stressful, more cost-conscious, and will accelerate you through the process so you can move on and thrive again.