These are uncertain times. We have all heard that phrase, or something like it, countless times in the past few months. Life has gone on amid uncertainty, fear, and contagion. Those who have been able to work from home have done so, and those with “essential” jobs have braved an unfamiliar world to keep society moving. Even as Kansas City, Jackson County, and other local governments throughout Missouri begin the slow process of reopening, the uncertainty looms over everything. For people who were already involved in a divorce before this all started, or who were planning or contemplating divorce, it is fair to say that almost nothing is certain right now. What is the coronavirus pandemic doing to Kansas City family courts? How can people best prepare for a family law dispute in the midst of a public health crisis? Here are a few things that you should know.
The Kansas City Mayor, the Jackson County Executive, and the Director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) have issued orders related to the pandemic. Prior orders have directed people to stay at home whenever possible, identified “essential” businesses that may remain open, and limited the operations of non-essential businesses. The DHSS order was signed on April 27, 2020. The current orders for Kansas City and Jackson County were signed on May 11 and May 12, respectively, All three orders expire on May 31. The Jackson County order partially modified an earlier order signed on April 16.
The orders in both Kansas City and Jackson County designate lawyers and law firms as “essential” businesses, with the caveat that their services must be “necessary to assist in compliance with non-elective, legally-required activities” (Jackson County) or “legally mandated activities” (Kansas City). Individuals are no longer required to remain at home except when engaging in “essential” activities, but the current orders “encourage” them to do so.
An order issued by the Supreme Court of Missouri on April 17, which has since been superseded, directed the court system to remain open, but also ordered the suspension of most “in-person proceedings,” including family cases. Matters that did not require in-person hearings were not suspended, but the court left it to the discretion of individual judges to decide whether or not to postpone those matters. These “essential” matters included:
The 16th Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over Jackson County, issued a similar order in April, followed by an order from the Family Court Division. The Supreme Court’s order expired on May 15.
The Supreme Court issued a new order on May 4, which had an effective date of May 16. It removed broad restrictions on in-person proceedings, but also ordered all circuit and appellate courts to limit their activities in accordance with a set of Operational Directives. These directives identify four phases, numbered zero through three, of reopening the courts. The order that expired May 15 corresponds to Phase Zero.
The 16th Circuit issued an order and a notice in May indicating that Jackson County courts are moving to Phase One. The Operational Directives encourage courts to “resum[e] only the most critical in-person proceedings” at this point. Judges are encouraged to allow remote access to hearings, such as by telephone or videoconferencing technology. Courts in Kansas City require everyone physically present in the courthouse to wear a mask, and to submit to screening for COVID-19 symptoms.
Court proceedings can move slowly even in “normal” times. Luckily, the courts are not letting the pandemic slow them down. The circumstances that lead to a divorce, after all, will not wait for the courts to move to a higher phase or reopen altogether. You should be able to file your divorce without any trouble. You might not even experience a delay in getting a hearing, although it might be conducted remotely. Even if you find that your case is delayed, you have other options besides going to court.
Just because your divorce might be delayed does not mean you cannot work on it. You could use this extra time to plan what you would like to achieve in a divorce, and what agreements you are willing to make to get where you want to be. This could mean working on an inventory of assets and debts in order to make a proposed division of marital property. It could also mean creating a parenting plan for your child or children that helps them get through both the divorce and the pandemic with love and support.
A divorce case does not have to involve the courts at all except at the very beginning, when the case is filed, and at the end, when a judge grants a divorce. The parties and their attorneys can handle everything that happens in between. The court is there to decide for the parties when they cannot reach an agreement. A slowdown in court activity could offer an incentive for the parties to come to the table — either at a safe social distance or at a virtual table — to hammer out a deal.
Mediation is a type of alternative dispute resolution in which a neutral third party, the mediator, helps the parties to a dispute come to an agreement. This usually happens with everyone sitting around a conference table, or with divorcing spouses in separate rooms as a mediator goes back and forth between them. In the 21st century, it can also involve divorcing spouses, their attorneys, and the mediator communicating through a videoconferencing app, with the mediator going between virtual “rooms” to talk to each side. These services are available whether the courts are open or not.
No matter how you decide to proceed with your divorce in these uncertain times, you need to take care of yourself. This means, among other things, acknowledging the stress and anxiety of not only a lockdown amid a dangerous virus, but also an ongoing or prospective divorce. Find something that makes you happy or gives you a moment of peace or contentment. Know that you are not alone in however you are feeling.
Mark A. Wortman is a family lawyer who practices in Kansas City, Missouri who has focused his practice exclusively on divorce, child custody, and other family law matters. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and skilled legal advocate, please contact us today online or give us a call at (816) 523-6100.