Is it harder to get a divorce during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Despite the coronavirus and the restrictions it has brought to all aspects of life, in Florida, while the courts are physically closed to the public for the most part, they have in large part moved legal proceedings into virtual space. For Floridians who would like to get divorced during this challenging time, divorce proceedings are still taking place remotely via telephone or video conferencing using platforms like Zoom.
Civil proceedings are currently mostly remote
As we explained in a previous post, Chief Justice Charles Canady of the Florida Supreme Court suspended jury trials on March 16. At the time of this writing, they remain suspended until July 2. However, nonjury proceedings like divorces are still moving forward because he also temporarily removed restrictions on holding remote court proceedings using electronic means.
On May 4, the Chief Justice issued a comprehensive administrative order for the statewide court system during the COVID-19 emergency. He explained that except for certain “essential and critical” court proceedings that still must be live, judges can still hear several other types of cases remotely, including nonjury trials, which would include divorces. Chief judges in each state judicial circuit shall enable these proceedings to be held remotely whenever possible.
On May 11, the Chief Justice sent guidance to Chief Judges statewide that included best practices developed for remote court proceedings (including divorce) for how witness testimony and physical evidence in trials should be handled.
Uncontested divorce through settlement
Should a divorcing couple negotiate a marital settlement agreement (MSA), they can submit it to the court for approval. A short hearing is necessary before the judge to adopt the MSA as the terms of the divorce, but this hearing may be remote. Since the parties to a comprehensive MSA have agreed to the terms of what is in essence a contract between them settling all the legal issues in the divorce, a trial is not required.
Contested divorces are proceeding during the pandemic
On April 6, Chief Judge Jack Tuter of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit in Broward County issued an amended order about matters related to the coronavirus emergency in which he directs that to prevent a backlog, civil proceedings (including family law matters) should proceed via remote communication methods. (He also offered the option of parties agreeing to have a judge decide issues in a trial based on written arguments instead of a traditional trial.)
Divorce proceedings in Broward County courts are currently being conducted remotely via electronic communication methods. While the time a trial takes varies, a divorcing party may be able to move things along by promptly submitting evidence and filing all required documents as well as serving all materials as mandated on the other party. In addition, early and consistent communication with court administrative staff may help to secure earlier hearing dates.
Current emergency procedures are in place through the end of May, although the Chief Justice could extend them.
The Seventeenth Circuit website has a COVID-19 page that links to relevant orders and other documents from the circuit and from the Florida Supreme Court and other officials.