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Attorneys navigating new territory as pandemic pushes some couples apart

Posted at 7:10 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 09:19:01-05

PHOENIX — From financial stress to spending more time at home, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested relationships over the past year and, in some cases, pushed couples apart. While civil court causes were initially paused or delayed, Valley attorney Helen Davis with The Cavanagh Law Firm said divorce proceedings are now happening virtually and — in part, due to backlog — even faster than before.

“One of the, I think, impacts of this pandemic has been to force people to really reflect on their lives … where their lives have been, where their lives are going, and what they want their lives to look like,” she told ABC15.

A recent study of early indicators found both divorce and marriage rates in many states, including Arizona, were down in 2020. Final numbers won’t be available for several more months but they don’t tell the entire story. Davis said navigating divorce proceedings in a virtual-environment has caused new challenges for clients and their attorneys.

“The court isn’t always very sensitive to some folks' need for a little bit of time and consideration to get themselves to accept how their life is going to change,” Davis said, referring to the speed at which proceedings are now moving forward in 2021. “It is not easy to guide your client through testimony, or listening to the other side’s testimony when they’re not present with you and you cannot pass a note or whisper in their ear.”

The pandemic has also caused new issues when establishing co-parenting plans and logistics, especially if there is travel involved, she said. One parent may be more resistant to traveling or potential COVID-19 exposure while the other may not. Children — who’ve faced canceled activities and dealt with remote learning — can end up caught in the middle.

“Now, here’s yet another change in the stability of the child’s life where their parents are going to divorce and the child is forced to go back and forth between the parents.”

Davis said she’s become more aware amid the pandemic of the need to, at times, refer clients to mental health professionals but said that could open up scrutiny of medical records during divorce proceedings. Her advice — barring violence or threats of violence in a relationship — is for couples to think twice and evaluate where the stress in their relationship may be coming from.

“Make sure that this is a decision that they feel is right for them, that they’re not going to regret later,” she said. “Don't say the ‘d word’ if you don’t really mean it because you can’t take it back.”