Why Are New York Family Courts Stuck In A Pandemic Limbo?

AJ Gilead

Why Are New York Family Courts Stuck In A Pandemic Limbo?

Family Law
| 5 min

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused quite a stir in the world - and the legal system is no exception. Across the United States, the courts have basically uprooted and replanted their procedures and methods in an effort to react to the pandemic while still continuing on with business. Regardless of attempts to keep the system moving as smoothly as possible, every family law case such as divorce or child custody is being held in limbo while the system adapts, leaving families stressed even further. No wonder the number of divorce cases is down.

While most in-person court dates have been postponed, suspended, or cancelled, most of New York’s court systems have taken a virtual approach to holding proceedings, including trials. The time it takes to schedule and complete many family law matters seems endless for many. While wanting to find out where children will live and who will make decisions is a huge question among splitting couples, divorcing spouses who want to move on with their lives separately are being made to wait much longer than usual to get that certificate. 

The Hold Up Of Divorce Certificates and Family Law Battles across the USA

“Dude, Covid courts won't even let me get divorced.  I feel like that pretty much sums up 2020: I can't even accomplish the s-------t thing on my list,” Real Housewives of Orange County alum Meghan King said in a People Magazine article in reference to her stagnated divorce proceeding from her ex Jim Edmonds. The separated couple share three children and have been apart for more than a year, which should be enough to have completed the divorce - in a normal world. California, like New York, is leaving those with open cases in the court system waiting much longer than normal. 

So what’s up? In spite of Coronavirus issues that arose almost a year ago, by now the courts should have some sort of system in place to bring the system back to some form of normalcy.

According to Natalie Patillo, a writer for The New York Review, COVID-19 is only amplifying problems that have already been present in the family court system due to lack of communication, funding, and understaffing. 

In her article, Patillo speaks about a case in which a mother, who filed to have her daughter’s visitation with the father suspended due to his abusive actions towards the mother, was provided a court date. Yet upon finding someone to speak to on the day of the scheduled appearance, was told her case was not on the docket and that she would need to file again. 

The article further goes on to explain that, essentially, the family court doesn’t favor those who are low income or at a disadvantage, because communication is low - so low in fact that immigrants or those without English as a first language are almost left out completely. 

“Failures of the courts to deal swiftly and appropriately with domestic violence pre-dates the pandemic, but the Coronavirus has revealed how systemic shortfalls can further endanger survivors and their families,” says Patillo. 

What are the side effects of a COVID court system that is failing to meet the demands and needs of its many cases?

  • Families who are stuck in extraordinary circumstances have to remain in them for longer than usual. 
  • If a victim of domestic abuse is attempting to divorce their spouse, instead they are left with the mental health issues related to still being legally and emotionally connected to their abuser. 
  • If a parent is being left estranged from their children based on the actions of the other parent, the time until they see their children again is questioned. 
  • Couples who are separated and have been for more than a year are not getting their divorce finalized. A couple cannot move on or heal from the breakup because they remain married. 
  • Those who have been separated for a time and are perhaps ready to remarry, must wait for their divorce certificate, pushing back wedding dates etc.
  • A divorcing spouse who requires support, either spousal or child, in order to make ends is put on hold and have no order from the courts for support. 
  • An ex-spouse who is already paying support but has been hit with hard times and cannot try and have their payments lowered. 
  • Some couples or spouses may try and favor themselves instead of being civil or following protocol properly. Setting the norm of physical custody before a decision can be made, withholding access because there is no order, and other attempts of “bending the rules” begin happening. 
  • Filing documents or coming up with a separation agreement and attempting to file it with the court can be impossible, therefore divorces are taking even longer to get started. 
  • How assets are divided may become skewed during an economic downturn and some items are just not worth as much. 

“The crux of a divorce is valuing and dividing assets. What those assets will be worth after the economic rout is difficult to say. Some lawyers think people need to accept a lower value, particularly when a business is involved. In that case, the spouse who needs the money “is probably out of luck,” says an article in The New York Times “There isn’t an argument that they should be able to postpone a valuation by a year or two to see if it goes up.”

Will the New York Family Court System Really See Reform?

The New York Court system is being put under pressure for some sort of reform by many organizations across the State, as well as individuals. The Court System has attempted, in 2020, to further simplify the court process in order to resolve cases quicker and make the process more accessible to all individuals. Perhaps the pandemic got in the way, however, we are yet to see any progress on this front. 

How the New York court system will react to the influx of media surrounding its many shortcomings is yet to be seen. However, while things may have slowed down, we continue to wait and depending on the system to handle justice and ensure even our family law cases are dealt with properly. We put our trust there and thankfully have the ability to speak up about inconsistencies in hope that the government or whichever forces can impact and make these changes - will. If anything, do it for the children.

Image: Axel Houmadi

Jan 26, 2021
AJ Gilead