Am I Able to Have a Divorce Hearing While Courts are Closed, due to COVID-19?
Am I able to have a divorce hearing while courts are closed, due to COVID-19?
I am licensed to practice law in the state of New Jersey and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As such I am likely not licensed in your state and therefore cannot give you legal advice. That said, I am able to provide you with some general observations based on the jurisdictions where I practice.
Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all facets of our lives, and access to the courts is no exception. Some courts are closed, and many are limited in their operations, due to mandated closures, shelter-in-place restrictions, and social distancing guidelines. Because many courts are limited both in terms of staffing and operations, the focus is sometimes on emergent matters. That said, many courts still are accepting and processing filings and working towards moving matters forward.
As a general proposition, many courts are using technology to continue to move matters forward. Hearings are occurring either through a video conferencing format or by telephone. For instance, In New Jersey, many courts moved to holding uncontested divorce hearings by telephone. Others also have implemented procedures to allow for uncontested divorces to be submitted “on the papers,” meaning that neither party needs to appear in court. Please note, that by “uncontested” divorces, I am referring to a divorce where there are no remaining issues to be resolved, and both parties are in agreement. If there are outstanding issues such as property distribution, support and maintenance, custody and parenting time, etc., then depending on your jurisdiction, there may very different procedures in place for the hearing.
The answer also likely depends on what stage you are in your divorce. Many courts still are accepting and processing filings. If you are at the beginning and looking to initiate the divorce action, unless your state courts are not accepting any filings, there is no benefit in waiting to file, and many courts will accept the filing as of the date it was received. The date of filing is critically important because it establishes the term of the marriage for purposes of property distribution, etc.
If you have already filed your divorce complaint, then there may be preliminary hearings or sessions scheduled. Often times, these may involve establishing discovery deadlines, putting interim or temporary orders in place, court-ordered mediation to deal with custody and parenting time, etc. Many courts either have put mechanisms in place, or are establishing mechanisms, for these preliminary hearings and sessions to go forward in an effort to reduce a future backlog from occurring.
However, if you are at the stage where your case is scheduled for trial, that may present a more unique challenge for the court, where a judge would need to take testimony, determine how credible witnesses are, and review evidence. If you live in a state where your courts still are holding in person hearings, then there may not be a delay. On the other hand, if your state courts currently are not holding in person hearings, your trial may be continued for a period of time.
A trial in a divorce matter can be extremely complex. If you currently are scheduled to go to trial, I strongly urge you to consult with a domestic litigation attorney in your jurisdiction to discuss whether your state is continuing these matters or whether they are proceeding as scheduled.
If you are scheduled for a preliminary hearing or are in the beginning of litigation, I also strongly encourage you to consult a domestic litigation attorney in your state, who can walk you through each phase of the process and provide you with guidance and advice as it specifically relates to your case.