The shutdown of New Jersey family law courts to halt the spread of COVID-19 was an unprecedented – and entirely necessary – effort to save lives. Even with these measures, NJ.com reports as of this writing that more than 168,000 in this state have been infected and 12,800+ have died. As the state and its courts are now considering whether it is safe to slowly reopen, the legal system is staring down a host of complications to which the pandemic gave rise.
Our East Brunswick family law attorneys know that in family courts, some of these have included:
- Economic impact, which led to contention over child support and spousal support.
- School closures, which have led to custody and parenting time issues.
- Closure of courts, which impacted procedural dates and deadlines by which matters like property distribution and dissolution of marriage were to be decided.
One bit of good news is that unlike New York, New Jersey courts did not completely (if temporarily) halt new divorce filings. This is important because the date for which divorce is filed determines when the values of certain assets are frozen. Although divorcing parties in New Jersey won’t be forced to contend with this, there’s no question that certain elements of a case may be temporarily delayed or otherwise affected. Your divorce lawyer, with whom you should be able to connect by phone, e-mail or virtual conferencing, can help guide you through this process.
When Will New Jersey Courts Re-Open?
New Jersey courts have continued to handle many cases virtually and telephonically, but some non-emergency matters have been put on hold.
Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court approved a post-pandemic plan for a gradual reopening of courts. We’ve been in Phase 1 since March, with about 5 percent of the court’s judges and staff onsite. Phase 2, expected to begin sometime in June, will involve a gradual and limited return, starting with 10-15 percent of judges and staff onsite, proceeding with certain matters that cannot be handled remotely. Phase 3, for which there is no specified date, will involve ongoing remote operations while gradually increasing onsite events with 50-75 percent of judges onsite, working staggered schedules. At some point in Phase 3, we’ll see jury trials resume. Phase 4, for which there is also no specified date, won’t occur until there is a vaccine or established herd immunity. It will involve allowing up to 80 percent of judges and staff onsite. These plans may be adjusted in the event of local COVID-19 flare-ups.
What Does This Mean for Child Support?
In New Jersey, there is virtually no recognized defense for not paying your child support – even in the middle of a pandemic. If you fall into arrears, you’re going to owe that amount.
The only real exception to this would be if you petitioned the court to modify your payments before you fell into arrears. If you find yourself already falling behind, you may be able to stop the snowball by working with a family law attorney experienced in handling child support modification requests.
Will the Ongoing Nature of the Virus Impact Parenting Time?
It could. Some parents, particularly those who work in high-risk occupations, have voluntarily made temporary changes to custody and parenting time agreements. Others have been compelled to do so by the courts.
However, parents cannot just arbitrarily decide not to adhere to existing parenting plans absent the consent of the other parent or the court without risking legal ramifications. They should consult with a child custody attorney to inquire about modification of those plans.
How Much Will Ongoing Delays Continue to Stall New Jersey Divorces?
This is hard to say, but much of it may depend on how complex your case is.
If you can resolve most of your disagreements through mediation – which can almost fully be conducted virtually – you may not see a significant setback in your New Jersey divorce timeline.
However, we all know some divorce cases can take years, particularly when there are sharp disputes over child custody and support, alimony and complicated valuation of homes, businesses, pension plans and other assets. Some of this may be further complicated because we don’t yet know the full scope of the economic impact. Some types of assets may need to be more carefully appraised or even re-appraised. These kinds of issues may throw a wrench in equitable distribution negotiations moving forward.
At the end of the day, the court system in New Jersey has done a commendable job of addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic. It’s going to take some time to pick up the pieces, but we’ll continue to work with our clients every step of the way.
If you have questions about filing for a New Jersey divorce or modification of child support, parenting time or alimony, our East Brunswick Family law firm can help. We continue to offer free initial consultations over the phone and via video conferencing.
Contact us at (732) 810-0034 or email us through our website.