Is divorce on the rise? Family Law Atty. Jhanice Domingo examines the impact of lockdowns

For couples in troubled marriages, the significant increase in time together is likely to cause increased tension. Photo: Unsplash

By Cristina DC Pastor

The FilAm: What is the effect of mandatory lockdowns on married couples? Has it led to a rise in divorce and separation cases?

Jhanice Domingo: It depends on the marital relationship. I am sure that some married couples are enjoying the extra quality time, and being home with their spouse. But for others who were already in troubled marriages before the COVID-19 outbreak, the significant increase in time together due to a mandatory lockdown is likely to cause increased tension and stress at home. Stressors caused by the pandemic — health issues, disagreements regarding the children, financial stress due to layoffs or reduced wages, etc.– can create problems in a healthy marriage. All the more if there is already a breakdown in communication and lack of trust in a strained marriage, these stressors can cause spouses to become even more estranged and decide to separate or divorce.

TF: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting divorced parents who are essential workers?

JD: Courts now have to find the right balance between: (1) ensuring that a parent and child continue to have meaningful parenting time; and (2) protecting the child against the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. For divorced parents who are essential workers, especially those serving on the frontlines, parenting disputes with former spouses are especially contentious.  As an example, many Filipino Americans work in the health care industry as physicians, nurses, medical technicians, nurse aids, etc. Because these jobs impose a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, the other parent may want in-person parenting time suspended.  If a dispute arises where one parent wants to enforce an existing custody/parenting time agreement, and another seeks modification due to COVID-19 related health and safety concerns, divorced co-parents can seek the assistance of a mediator to settle the dispute or file an application in Court.

TF: Aren’t couples ideally supposed to live together harmoniously under any circumstances? You know, for better or for worse?

JD: Ideally, yes. I don’t think anyone gets married with the intention to one day get divorced but the reality is that relationships are complex and it is not always “until death do us part” for everyone. I also think that there is a (false) assumption that every divorce is bitter and ugly. It is not always. In my nearly 20 years of practice, I have seen a wide spectrum of divorce cases. I have handled very amicable “un-couplings.” I have settled and mediated divorce cases, and I also have tried complex, high-conflict divorces. I think in the Filipino-American community, there is still a stigma attached to divorce and there is significant pressure to stay married at all costs, which can be problematic especially in cases where there is domestic violence. To this day, the Philippines is still the only country other than the Vatican where there is no legal provision for divorce.

TF: As a Family Law attorney, what do you usually tell  people who are looking to get out of their marriage?

JD: If you are contemplating divorce, take the time to schedule a legal consultation with a divorce attorney. Divorce is a life-changing decision, and you can’t make such an important decision without first educating yourself about the legal process and without knowing what are your legal rights. Just because you consult with a divorce attorney doesn’t necessarily mean that you ultimately have to decide to get divorced now or even ever. I have done legal consultations for people who thereafter decided to stay married. Some decided it was not the right time for them and then they came back to me months or years later when they were ready.

TF: Is it easier to get a divorce nowadays? Are the courts open to conduct in-person hearings?

JD: In some respects, it’s easier because there are no in-person court appearances right now so uncontested divorce hearings are being conducted telephonically or by video conference. Some Family Court judges are even granting divorces “on the papers.” For litigants who have settled their divorce by way of a marital settlement agreement, they don’t even have to make an in-person court appearance to put through their divorce. Family Courts remain open in New Jersey so those who want to initiate divorce proceedings can still file their complaints. The Family Courts, at least in New Jersey, have made tremendous efforts to minimize delay of ongoing divorce proceedings and to utilize video conferencing if circumstances permit.

Atty. Jhanice Domingo, a partner at Einhorn Barbarito Frost and Botwinick PC, has nearly 20 years of experience on family law and litigation. She handles high-conflict cases as well as alternative dispute resolution of simpler family law matters. Due to her cultural background, she brings an added level of competence to family law issues within the Asian Pacific American community.  She has a B.A. in Psychology, Minor in Women’s Studies from Boston College, and earned her J.D. from Seton Hall Law School. She speaks Tagalog fluently.

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