Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, almost all countries in the world are under lockdown, and citizens are required to follow strict social distancing norms. While health and financial wellbeing are the two most prominent concerns of this worldwide crisis, the third consequence is now emerging, and it is a strange one.
We are talking about a sudden spike in divorce rates!
Staying indoors due to lockdown means couples have been forced to spend more time together. For many, it has led to constant fights or other marital irritants, resulting in a mutual decision to get a divorce.
China is the first country to witness a sudden rise in the rate of divorce as the nation started lifting or easing lockdown restrictions in many cities. According to a report by Bloomberg, some of the leading lawyers in the country saw as much as a 25% rise in their caseload since the lockdown eased in mid-March.
This sudden rise comes as a warning to the rest of the world. Several countries, including the US, are likely to follow suit.
Let’s looks at some of the implications of this for divorce mediation lawyers.
1. Be Prepared to Use Remote Technology
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all federal and state government agencies have had to adapt to new technologies and processes to continue their operations. The US justice system is no exception to this.
In most states, the shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders are not likely to be lifted for the foreseeable future. In a commendable move, most courthouses and judges have decided to start operating remotely to keep the wheels of the justice system rolling.
They are using various technologies such as Zoom calling and video conferencing to hold hearings, panel discussions, meetings, and daily proceedings. For example, the supreme court of Missouri suspended any local rules that would prohibit judges from using any technology in the courtroom. They have also encouraged local courts to adopt the necessary technology and processes to ensure the most important court proceedings continue.
In other words, both lawyers and their clients need to be prepared to use remote technology. You may not feel comfortable taking an oath on your iPad through a Zoom meeting. However, that’s what it may take to get your case forward. If you haven’t learned to use these remote communication tools before, now is the time.
2. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Seems Like the Best Option
As experienced by St. Louis divorce mediation attorneys, we believe that in most divorce cases, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods like mediation, arbitration, and collaboration are much more effective. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the importance of these options can’t be stressed enough.
Although many local, state, and federal courts are using remote technology to keep things moving, family courts are still closed, and they are likely to remain so in many cities. So, mediations and arbitrations through remote technology such as Zoom and Skype seem to be the best options to move forward with your legal separation.
However, virtual mediations come with a few unique challenges. For example, while new couples confined to their homes may find it easier to go through online mediation, couples with families may find it more difficult as the children are also in the house.
Adults can handle a divorce maturely. However, talking about legal separation in front of your kids is emotionally demanding. Also, some people may not be able to talk privately with their spouse in the next room, especially if it is not an amicable divorce.
You can discuss temporary issues such as discovery compliance and asset division over video conferencing. Tools like Zoom can also help you overcome certain privacy issues. For example, you can put each participant in a separate cyber room, so they don’t have to look at each other during the meeting.
3. Completing Paperwork for Mediation
In most divorce mediation processes, dividing financial assets is the most critical step. Getting a list of different assets from your clients, putting together the ownership and other details, and calculating the debt and financial liability of each client are time-consuming tasks.
This pandemic, where most in-person court proceedings have come to a halt, is the best opportunity to evaluate the finances of your clients thoroughly. Furthermore, the imminent economic uncertainty due to the pandemic is also likely to affect the value of various financial assets.
You need to consult your clients to get their financial details in order and evaluated once again to get the best possible settlement. You can also provide your clients with new tax planning and rebalancing options, if possible.
Your client’s spouse may also try to take advantage of the situation, forcing your client to walk away with too little. So, you need to focus on how you can maximize your settlement regardless of the financial uncertainty. As most of the financial information is now available online, sharing it with an attorney or a mediator shouldn’t be a problem even while social distancing.
4. Digitally Signing Documents
Another critical step in any divorce mediation is signing the agreements once both parties have agreed on the settlement conditions. Under normal circumstances, both parties would most likely sign the documents in an in-person meeting, in the presence of their attorneys and the mediator. However, with social distancing in place, that option is no longer available.
Fortunately, there are several digital signing options available in the era of the internet. Various laws such as the U.S. Electronic Signature in Global and National Commerce Act of 2000 (ESIGN Act) and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) in the US and European Union- Electronic Identification, Authentication and Trust Services (eIDAS) in Europe ensure the legality of digitally signed agreements.
You can share the documents over Zoom or Skype or email, and if everything looks ok, you can sign them using one of the digital signing tools. From free and open-source tools to paid ones, you can find plenty of digital signature software on the internet.
If for some reason you are unable to sign the documents electronically, you can place them on record via any remote communication channel. The same can be signed later digitally or in-person. The most significant advantage of this option is that you can review the agreement thoroughly during the stay-at-home period.
5. Managing Your Caseload Proactively
As mentioned in the beginning, the caseload for divorce lawyers is going to increase dramatically once the government starts lifting the stay-at-home restrictions. In other words, divorce lawyers and mediators need to be prepared to handle the increased workload.
To avoid confusion and delay, take proactive steps today. Use your spare time to set up a system for talking to clients, preparing the paperwork, and scheduling the proceedings in the courts when they open.
Remember, every one of your clients is going to be frustrated due to the unexpected delay in their proceedings. So, you need to be on your toes to help them in any way you can if you don’t want to lose them.
Just like China, the rest of the world, including the US, is likely to expect a spike in divorce cases. Both attorneys and their clients need to brace themselves for the challenging times ahead. Hopefully, the above few pointers will help not only the couples going through a divorce, but also divorce mediation lawyers to prepare for and overcome present and future challenges. Let’s hope that this crisis gets over soon. Until then, stay home and stay safe.