For the first time since December 20, fewer than 10,000 Texans are hospitalized with COVID-19 according to the Texas Tribune. However, the current number of 9,401 Texans hospitalized, and the emergence in Texas of new, highly contagious strains signals the grim reality that it will long time before things will return to normal.
As the COVID crisis lingers, it's effect on people's lives, especially those trying to manage children between two homes, grows increasingly burdensome. For those who have family law disputes, the challenges are increasing as the COVID crisis lingers into its second year. Here are the top three problems that our firm has experienced with our clients:
1. Job Loss Affecting Child Support Payments
One of the most obvious and direct impacts to daily life due to the COVID crisis is how it has hurt family income. As more small businesses flounder and shut down, job losses in Texas are climbing steadily. Separated and divorced parents are often already struggling to make ends meet, but as the COVID crisis endures, they will see savings dry up and soon existing child support payments may slow or stop.
Courts in the Houston and Galveston areas remain sensitive to parents in this situation but are proceeding with child support enforcement case as normal. They are issuing contempt orders as readily as before, and it is incumbent on the parent ordered to pay support to approach the Court early about having their child support obligation reduced if they are experiencing financial difficulty due to COVID related job loss or reduction in hours. Failure by the payer to seek to have the previous order modified- even if temporarily - may result in contempt actions being brought by either the obligee or the Texas Attorney General. And despite the understanding the Courts may grant the obligor in these extraordinary times, it should be noted that the Courts have not abandoned the expectation that parents must supply evidence of their particular financial challenges or economic hardships. It's recommended that parents seek legal counsel to assist them. Many lawyers, such as our firm, offer affordable limited scope services to help in this situation.
2. Changes in Living Conditions
For many Texas families, the day to day physical living conditions and circumstances have been negatively impacted by the lingering COVID crisis.
In a recent divorce case, the father sought the immediate sale of the marital home where the mother and the two children were still living. The father, an optometrist, claimed that the COVID crisis had reduced his income by half, and as the sole wage earner, he could no longer afford to pay the mortgage and costs for the couple's large home. The mother counter-argued that the father chose to keep his practice closed longer than necessary and that COVID restrictions had been lifted.
The Court reviewed the larger financial situation of the couple and ordered the immediate sale of the home and temporary support payments for the mother for her to rent a smaller house. The Court declared that "COVID-19 has at least temporarily ruined the financial prospects of both of these parties. And neither of them is to blame."
3. In-person vs. Online Learning
Many if not most Texas schools offer two options for children to attend school- traditional attendance at the school ("brick and mortar") or virtual learning using software and the internet ("online"). However, when parents do not agree on what is best for the children- as often happens during and after divorces- then disputes arise that often wind up in court.
In a different recent divorce case, a temporary order directed the mother would be the temporary primary caregiver of the children and the father would have weekend visitations through the divorce proceedings. It also directed that the children should be taught virtually. The mother, although not working herself and being supported financially by the husband, was not satisfied with the temporary order because she wanted the kids in school. After the temporary hearing, the mother shut off her internet service- which she calculated she could do because it was not specifically prohibited by the Court. Without internet access the kids could not attend school virtually. The father was soon alerted to the situation and took the mother back to court. At the emergency hearing the mother pressed to explain her actions and their impact on the children's education. The mother "mostly deflec[ed]" and stated the children's educational needs were being met otherwise. The Court ultimately ordered the mother to immediately provide internet and all necessary equipment for the children to attend school virtually. The Court also admonished the mother that if she again attempted to thwart the order, then primary care would be given to the father.
The COVID crisis has been with us for over a year and it seems we have a long way to go before things return to normal. The long length of this crisis is having trickle-down effects on separated and divorced families in many ways. These result is an increase in conflicts where often the only resolution is to seek relief from the courts with the help of an experienced family law attorney.
If you have experienced any of these issues, or you if you think there are other issues that are more widely experienced that the ones we have listed, we invite your comments below.
Attorney Sean Y. Palmer has over 19 years of legal experience as a Texas Attorney and over 25 years as a Qualified Mediator in civil, family and CPS cases. Palmer practices exclusively in the area Family Law and handles Divorce, Child Custody, Child Support, Adoptions, and other Family Law Litigation cases. He represents clients throughout the greater Houston Galveston area, including: Clear Lake, NASA, Webster, Friendswood, Seabrook, League City, Galveston, Texas City, Dickinson, La Porte, La Marque, Clear Lake Shores, Bacliff, Kemah, Pasadena, Baytown, Deer Park, Harris County, and Galveston County, Texas.