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The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the nation, causing uncertainty in its wake. While many essential businesses and government offices have shut down, the Maryland courts have been diligent in figuring out how certain matters can still be heard. While the Maryland courts may be restricted, many are still conducting uncontested divorce hearings at this time. If you and your spouse have an uncontested case that is ripe for testimony, the following courts are accepting new filings and may be able to hear your case now:

Circuit Court for Baltimore County: The Circuit Court for Baltimore County is now conducting remote uncontested divorce hearings as long as two attorneys are involved.

Circuit Court for Kent County: Beginning the week of May 5, 2020, the Circuit Court for Kent County is slated to conduct remote uncontested divorce hearings that are ripe.

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What is an Absolute Divorce?

The effect of Maryland’s absolute divorce is parallel to a traditional divorce; it is the final termination of the marriage. In an absolute divorce, custody, visitation, and child support terms between both parties are set, both parties are granted the right to live separately and apart, a legal name change may be granted (the resumption of a former name), and even remarry if they choose. An absolute divorce also allows the court to decide on matters regarding alimony and marital property, including any division of assets, transfer of retirement interests, and any other equitable distribution of real property, personal property and pension/retirement assets acquired during the course of the marriage. Ultimately, both parties are granted the right to sever all legal and financial ties from one another.

What are the grounds for divorce in Maryland?

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Some parents are facing difficult decisions during this COVID-19 pandemic, including whether their children should be physically near a parent that is working with the public. For some families, it means that one parent temporarily lives in another part of the house. A related CNN article can be found here.  For other families, it means one parent temporarily lives in another place altogether. A related ABC article can be found here.

But, for co-parents that live in separate households, the thought of children being near a parent that is a first responder, a front-line worker, or an essential employee can lead to even more difficult decisions. The guidance from the Maryland Judiciary is clear:

All court orders for a child’s custody, parenting time, and child support are still in effect. In some situations, if permitted under the court order, custodians can jointly adjust their shared parenting responsibilities in ways that they agree are best for the children. If custodians are not able to agree, the court order controls.

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The spread of COVID-19 has stressed many family dynamics on a daily basis. Kitchen tables are now elementary school classrooms and backyards now host recess. With Maryland’s Stay-At-Home Order still in place, children and parents are finding themselves working through finding a new normal.

Parents that share time with their children between different households face an even larger set of challenges. Court orders that define parenting time, holiday schedules, and other child-focused decisions often do not help guide parents through questions like: “What happens in a global, viral pandemic?”.

With the seeming constant change to regulations and recommendations, the best recommendation is flexibility, while understanding your Order remains in place absent an agreement to deviate. Communicate with your children and your co-parent to make the best decision possible for your children and your collective family. Each day may bring new challenges and it is important that co-parents do their best to communicate about those challenges and remain open and flexible to the resolutions. Family flexibility is the new normal.

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As fears surrounding COVID-19 continue to increase and parents in divided households struggle to do what they think is best for their children’s health and safety, below are two examples of how emergency requests have been handled in other States, Florida and New Jersey.

In Orange County, Florida a mother filed for temporary custody of her child after first-responder (firefighter/EMT) father did not voluntarily agree to allow her to keep their child in her care until the Florida’s state of emergency due to COVID-19 ends. The Judge denied the mother’s request stating there was no evidence the father was failing to take proper safety precautions or otherwise acting in a way to place the child in danger. The Judge further found “there is no evidence indicating the continuation of timesharing would subject the minor child to any risk of harm specific to the actions of behavior of the father”. The full news article can be found here.

In New Jersey, a father filed for temporary custody of his child after the mother, a physician, continued to see patients in person in the hospital during the COVID-19 outbreak. The New Jersey Court granted an emergency order and awarded the father temporary custody of the child. After the mother was able to commit to telework/health and to not see patients in person, the Judge reversed the Order. The full news article can be found here.

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The AFCC is the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. It is a group of individuals from many disciplines associated with or in the family court arena. AFCC members include lawyers, mediators, judges, psychologists, counselors, social workers, parenting coordinators, psychiatrists, researchers, teachers, and policymakers throughout the country. The AFCC recently released seven guidelines for parents who are divorced/separated and sharing custody of children during the COVID-19 pandemic. While these guidelines are not mandated, they provide knowledge and principles of good practice in navigating this crisis. A summary of the seven guidelines as set forth by the AFCC are:

1. BE HEALTHY: Comply with all CDC, local and state guidelines and model good behavior for your children. This also means to be informed by staying in touch with reliable media sources.

2. BE MINDFUL: Be honest about the seriousness of COVID-19, but maintain a calm demeanor for your children. DO not expose your children to endless media coverage, but encourage your children to ask questions and provide them with age appropriate answers.

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Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, family units are quarantining together worldwide. These sudden movement restrictions aimed towards halting the spread of the coronavirus may be a direct and proximate cause for a surge in domestic violence complaints. A Side Effect of Coronavirus: Maryland Experts say more Domestic Violence, Fewer Victims Seeking Help.  According to experts, complaints of domestic abuse often increase when families are forced to spend extensive amounts of time together. Now, with families on lockdown and the government placing restrictions on all forms of public gatherings, the forced proximity and stress of the coronavirus outbreak has become a primary factor in this continuing rise of violence within homes.

In areas such as Baltimore, law enforcement has yet to experience an increase in the volume of domestic violence calls, however Baltimore-area service providers believe that this can be attributed to victims being confined with their abusers, thereby creating an environment in which they are unable to reach out themselves. Domestic Abusers Can Control Your Device. There also seems to be widespread confusion regarding what services and resources are available during this time, which inhibits victims from coming forward.

While the quarantines will eventually end, the danger to individuals in abusive relationships seems to intensify as the confinement drags on. If you or someone you know is currently quarantined with an abusive partner during this pandemic, we encourage you to seek help using the resources and tools provided below. In many states such as Maryland, nonprofit agencies will assist victims of domestic violence either get to a safer location or guide them through securing a get-away plan for when they are ready to leave regardless of a stay-at-home order. The House of Ruth, a domestic violence shelter in Maryland, has thus far maintained its emergency shelter will remain open for women and children during the pandemic. Shelters Gird for Domestic Violence Spike During Covid-19 Outbreak. A link to the complete set of agencies and hotlines still operating during the coronavirus outbreak are provided for your use. Maryland Domestic Service Providers. Additional hotline information is provided for those who wish to contact service providers specializing in domestic abuse for support and guidance. The Maryland Judiciary has provided direction that although Maryland courts are closed for most matters, victims of domestic violence can still seek protective orders during the pandemic. At the present time Petitions are to be filed with the District Court Commissioner and the direction from the Judiciary is to call ahead.

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I have a handful of clients in this exact situation and all of them are finding it increasingly difficult to share space in a home they no longer want to share with the other. In addition to grudgingly sharing the space, they are attempting to do so while one or both are working from home or while one is working and the other is laid off, while attempting to assist their children with distance/remote learning, and while juggling the household tasks of cooking cleaning, paying bills, etc. Needless to say emotions are on the rise. In a few of the cases I have been able to work out agreed upon designated areas (specific rooms) for each party to conduct their working from home duties, along with times for the use of those spaces, scheduling days and/or subjects each parent is responsible for assisting the children with their education, and how to handle the payment of expenses. While not a permanent solution, ‘rules’ to follow hopefully give the parents and children some consistency to reduce the tension in household.

If you find yourself in a situation such as this some considerations to develop a plan for your home environment during the COVID-19 confinement are:

What are each parents work-related commitments, days and times?

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Many parents have lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the closure of non-essential businesses and the government recommendation to stay at home, some parents are not able to find work. A court-ordered obligation to pay child support does not automatically stop because of a job loss, even if that job loss if through no fault of your own.

If you have lost your job and are unable to pay child support, we encourage you to communicate with your co-parent as soon as possible. Perhaps a written agreement or consent order can be worked out between the two of you to stay the child support payments until you are back to work. In Maryland, child support can be modified in certain circumstances, but with the courts only hearing certain types of emergency matters at the present time, a hearing on the modification will take longer than usual. However, it may still be worth filing with the court for a modification to attempt to protect yourself from the accumulation of child support arrearages while unemployed. In the meantime, the Maryland Judiciary has directed that you must continue to pay child support as ordered. The Maryland Judiciary has suggested that if you have questions or need help, whether you pay or receive child support, to call the Department of Human Services Call Center 1-800-322-6347. Maryland Courts Coronavirus Information

If you are experiencing a problem in paying or receiving child support during these challenging times, we encourage you to reach out to an experienced family attorney for guidance and assistance.

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We understand that parents are facing challenging times in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. When one parent is an essential employee, it is especially concerning for co-parents when children transition from one parent’s home to the other for court-ordered parenting time. National news stories are filled with children and parents greeting each other through glass doors and windows. Those front-line, essential-employee parents recognize that in-person contact with their children during this COVID-19 pandemic is not in the best interest of the health and safety of their children.  New Battle for those on Coronavirus Front Lines: Child Custody .  Closer to home, the White House has now officially designated the Baltimore / Washington, D.C. area as an emerging COVID-19 hotspot. Baltimore/Washington DC Emerging Hot Spot.

If you co-parent with a front-line or essential employee in Maryland, we encourage you to communicate as co-parents to come to a physical custody and access arrangement in the best interest of the health and safety of your children during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Maryland Judiciary has provided direction that if co-parents cannot agree, they must follow the terms of the court Order.

If you need help navigating the conversation, we encourage you to reach out to an experienced family attorney.

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