Stephanie Winegrad has gotten a lot of calls about divorce during the pandemic.
“Generally, I found there was an increase in people who wanted to get divorced and also people who were in the middle of divorce who said, ‘I want this done. I want it over,’” said Winegrad, a partner at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP.
Spending more time at home has pushed some relationships to the breaking point, but many Jewish family lawyers say increased interest in separation has not yet translated to a higher divorce rate.
In the five-county area, court closures have made divorce, custody and other aspects of family law a lot more complicated.
“Nothing was open for months,” said David Ladov, partner and chair of the Family Law Department at Obermayer Rebmann.
The instability of the economic and public health crises also has made clients hesitant to act.
“There’s been an uptick in phone calls with people looking for information, but I’m not sure people want to do anything right now because there’s so much uncertainty,” said David Gutin, partner at Astor Weiss Kaplan & Mandel, LLP. “For people who are together, barring domestic violence, it’s safer not to rock the boat.”
For people who were already in the process of getting divorced when the pandemic hit, court meetings have gone virtual.
“We’re having a lot of pretrial conferences that used to be done in person often being done by appointment on the telephone,” said Cynthia Weiss Stein, partner at Shemtob Draganosky Taylor, P.C.
Many of the county courts are now in the reopening process after spring shutdowns. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered courts to close to the public on March 18, but each county court is allowed to determine its own reopening schedule.
“The logistics are very different county to county because of the physical aspects of the courthouse. So, I mean, for example, Philadelphia Family Court is basically like a high-rise city building. And so elevators present a real challenge,” Stein said.
As a result, some courts are more open for in-person proceedings than others.
“Chester County and Bucks County have been open for about two months. But the other counties are not as open. You can’t just walk in the ]Philadelphia Family Court],” Ladov said.
Even when most courts were shut down in March and April, one notable exception to remote activity was domestic abuse.
“The courts have remained open for domestic abuse cases,” Ladov said. “There was probably a month or so where those weren’t heard, but most of the courts heard them as quickly as they could.”
Shana Weiner is the founder of Dinah, an organization that provides legal services to Jewish survivors of domestic abuse in the Greater Philadelphia area. She said domestic abuse has increased during the pandemic, according to data from Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Increased time at home and the closure of public spaces has made it more difficult for victims to seek help.
“People can’t actually get help because survivors don’t have the same opportunities to be out of the house that they would otherwise have,” she said.
Weiner said that Dinah has always operated remotely, but is struggling to find enough pro bono attorneys to volunteer during the economic crisis.
“That’s actually where we’ve been hit the hardest is that attorneys right now, who would otherwise be very eager to volunteer and recognize what an important service and mitzvah we’re doing for the Jewish community, they’ve been hit on their own and can’t necessarily afford to spend the time to take on a volunteer case,” she said.
Concerns about the virus have changed the way couples who are already separated think about custody agreements.
“We had a number of situations where one of the parents was a health care worker and the other parent was taking advantage of the situation, and basically said, ‘You’re not seeing the kids,’” Ladov said.
According to Julie Auerbach, partner at Astor Weiss, most county courts did not accept potential exposure to COVID-19 or stay-at-home orders as an excuse to alter custody agreements, and Gov. Tom Wolf designated custody
“Courts didn’t penalize health care workers on the front lines trying to save lives,” she said.
Winegrad said the pandemic has led some of her clients to be more flexible about their time with their kids, especially if one is an essential worker who can’t provide child care during the week.
“The couples who have worked together seem to be creative and doing what’s best for the children in this current situation. They are coming up with schedules that work for their family.”
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