As Illinois adjusts to the new circumstances that COVID-19 has brought to us, families are feeling the strain. An intact family will face challenges of new routines, reduced mobility and general anxiety due to uncertainty.
Parents who have divorced and have been co-parenting under a Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage have an added layer of complexity due to the fact that they are living in two houses. Executive Order 2020-10 states that, with several exceptions, “all individuals currently living in the State of Illinois are ordered to stay at home…” Children whose parents are divorced live in two homes. While some Judgments and Marital Settlement Agreements may include statements establishing a child’s residence with one parent for school purposes, a child of divorced parents need both parents. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the child considers both parents’ homes to be their “home.” In fact, Section 14.e of the Executive Order provides that “Essential Travel” includes “Travel required by law enforcement or court order including to transport children pursuant to a custody order.” So – though this COVID-19 crisis may add logistical details to deal with in a family that has already divorced, at least these families have structure.
The families in between – who are still living together while working through their divorce – will really have to step up. Confined to close quarters with their “soon-to-be-ex-spouse,” people will need help. They don’t want to be together. This crisis is putting legal action on hold. Although “legal services” have been deemed an essential business, courthouses have been reduced to skeleton crews. Only emergency matters and orders of protection are being heard in some counties. While some courthouses, e.g., Cook and Will, have announced that they will do video prove-ups, that will only help families that are close to the finish line.
What are we to do?
First as a mediator and a Collaborative Lawyer, I acknowledge my own bias. I want to keep parents talking to one another and working together. My office is open. We are doing mediation sessions and Collaborative meetings via Zoom. People in the midst of the divorce process want to keep making progress. I answer my clients’ questions about their rights, their duties, their obligations and their remedies. And then I explain that the courthouse is not really open for business. How can they work with their spouse, the co-parent, to come up with solutions so everyone can live together?
As a lawyer, I stand for Peace and Justice. I coach my clients to help them experience resolving their own disputes. This gives them a foundation. There is a place to stand together where they, although no longer romantically attached, can be there for their children. When people are in the discernment phase, I support them in really looking at how they can get their relationship back on track or, if that is not possible, how to divorce while preserving as much of the relationship as possible.
When this storm passes, we will all be changed. People who can work together will be able to finish up – show up in court with the final decisions that they have made. If people want to or need to fight, the courthouses will re-open. For now, let common sense and decency reign.