COVID-19 has changed our lives. For those who rely on Parenting Plan Agreements to provide structure to daily routines, COVID-19 concerns and restrictions present unique challenges. What may have worked perfectly a month ago is no longer feasible.
Consider the following situation, which is similar to what thousands of parents across the country are experiencing:
Husband and Wife got divorced last year after 15 years of marriage. Wife was a stay-at-home mother to their children throughout the duration of their marriage. These parents have shared equal parenting time with their two minor children. At divorce, they agreed that Husband would pay Wife;
- $2,000 per month in spousal support for a period of 3 years, and
- $1,500 per month in Child Support until each child had reached the age of 18.
Last week, Husband’s business was forced to close temporarily. There is no timeline for reopening. Temporarily, with no income, Husband is unable to pay his Spousal Maintenance obligation and barely able to pay his Child Support obligation. Wife relies on that support to meet her basic monthly expenses. They generally have low conflict, but the situation is causing conflict to increase.
What are the parents to do?
Under Arizona law, both Spousal Maintenance and Child Support may be modified in certain circumstances.
- Spousal Maintenance requires a “substantial and continuing change in circumstances” for the court to consider modification. An unintentional loss of employment may qualify as such a change. However, given that we have never before experienced a pandemic crisis, it is uncertain how the court will handle these problems.
- Child Support is more flexible in it’s modifiability, in most circumstances demonstrated under the Child Support Guidelines by a 15% change of the award amount, once current income and parenting time are input into Arizona’s Child Support Calculator.
Will the people’s current circumstances, heavily influenced by the pandemic, be considered by the courts to be “continuing?”……… No one knows.
Attorneys could argue over this issue for many months, assuming they can even get into a courtroom either virtually or in-person. But, the courts are currently backlogged and experiencing long delays. The risk of going to court is high and so is the cost. The court-ordered outcomes usually produce losers. Conflict will likely explode. Litigation over financial issues during a financial crisis adds insult to injury.
When co-parents are able to sit together and identify temporary solutions that respond to current critical issues, the entire family benefits. In post-divorce mediation, which is online, affordable, and available to be scheduled now, former spouses are temporarily agreeing on creative, even sometimes “radical” temporary solutions to best survive this crisis.
Mediate.com CEO, Jim Melamed has suggested that parents reaching emergency agreements may specifically agree that the agreements:
- Are Only Temporary
- Do Not Set any Precedent
- Are Not Admissible in Court and Can Not Be Used Against Each Other at a Later Time
- May Include Delay of Payment and/or Adjustment of Parenting Time Agreements
- May Allow for Retroactive Payment
Emergency temporary agreements that some are considering are to:
- Modify Spousal Maintenance or Child Support
- Create a “Shared Child-Checking Account” Approach (Both parents contribute to a account designated for child expenses — a common agreement in mediation)
- Provide Services or Other Items in lieu of Spousal Maintenance, ie. lawn care, errands, groceries, lending a vehicle, etc.
- Take Out a Loan
- Cash in Retirement or Insurance Plans (Be aware of penalty costs for early cash-out)
- Reduce Food Costs (Eat meals Together as a Family)
- Refinance Property (Reduce monthly cost and get cash)
- Combine Stimulus Checks
- Complete Taxes Immediately for Refund and Share It
- Move-in Together (To reduce costs and be with children)
- Sell Items and Share Proceeds (Furniture, Extra Cars, Extra Computers)
- Stop Non-Essential Services to Reduce Expenses
- Contact Mortgage Company – Apply to Skip a Payment
- Reduce Phone Service Plan
How to approach sensitive conversations in online-mediation include:
- Take a “problem-solving” approach. Stay away from a “blame-placing” approach.
- Be honest. It can be scary to be vulnerable and honest with others, especially a former spouse. Be willing to discuss your greatest fears and listen to understand when your former spouse is sharing their fears.
- Compromise leads to a ‘Win’ for the entire family. Often, agreements will not be exactly as either of you had hoped. Mediation helps you compromise by combining both of your interests. This allows each of you, and your children, to move forward with the agreements, as a team.
- Prioritize what is most important. Likely you are experiencing a number of fears all at once, and that is normal. Discuss the one or two most important items. Break discussions into categories, like ‘Finances’ and ‘Children’s Needs.’ This will help you to be focused and efficient.
- Be creative. Think outside the box and be open to proposing potentially odd ideas under normal circumstances. It is better to have more options on the table than less. Often, the perfect solution is a mixture of multiple options.
- Take a break and step back. Set a time limit and an agenda to follow. Discuss as much as you can in that time and then STOP. Your break could be 15 minutes, an hour, or even a day. Many times, it can feel as though you have hit a wall and can’t move forward, and a break can be an easy solution.
- Say “I will think about it,” instead of “No.” If necessary, ask for more time to think about the option or offer your own proposal.
- Make Acceptable Proposals. Only propose options you truly believe your former spouse might accept. Keep your co-parent’s interests in mind and cushion your proposal with these items. Make your proposal as acceptable and approachable as possible.
The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation offers online solutions to help divorced spouses make vital temporary agreements. Even if you are in the midst of your divorce process, we can help you. The Aurit Center can provide an efficient and effective process to discuss these changes, reach agreements, and even file them accordingly with the court. We are here to support you in having the healthiest process possible.