Divorce rates have actually been declining since the 1980s, where the commonly used “50%” statistic first took hold. Now, divorce rates in the U.S. average to about 39%. Just prior to the pandemic, divorce rates were actually at an all-time low in 2019. According to the American Community Survey data from the 2018 census, for every 1,000 marriages in 2018, only 14.9 ended in divorce. Yet still, it was reported in August 2019 that divorce rates in America have increased by a shocking 34% since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The reasoning behind this seems clear; couples are spending 24/7 together in lockdown, with heightened mental health crisis, unemployment, homeschooling, and the pending loom of death from the virus. Interestingly, newlyweds were the group with the largest reported divorce rate increase 58% of those who reported divorcing during COVID-19 were married within the last 5 years.
However, other studies conducted during this time period show that the majority of married couples report that they are actually stronger than before the pandemic. Many people have said that the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more or that the time spent together has deepened their connection.
Some experts have looked to the “collective disaster response” to help explain these different patterns for divorce during the pandemic. The collective disaster response curve is a model charting the phases of how a community moves in the wake of a trauma. The curve shows how at the beginning of the pandemic, communities and families usually adapt a “We will get through this together!” mindset. By the middle to end of the peak of the disaster, that starts to wear off- fear, anxiety, stress, and irritability start to set in. This is where marriages begin to struggle. At the very worst of it, outreach to domestic violence hotlines has increased by 9% during this time.
These trends show that for the majority of couples, if you have made it through the first few months of the pandemic intact, the pandemic has probably strengthened your relationship. On the other hand, if you saw serious marital problems early on that only worsened as the pandemic continued, you were probably in the same boat as the couples that surged the divorce rate. Either response is completely valid. Every marriage has disagreements and turmoil- how you are able to work through it and adapt to situations like a global pandemic will make or break your marriage.
So, how can divorce lawyers help their clients through this period of time, keeping in mind the unique challenges of the pandemic? There will likely be entirely new strategies, legal issues, and court room protocols to follow while the pandemic is in full force, and likely for a while after. For example, while the issues of vaccines have certainly come up in family court, the COVID-19 vaccine options and whether or not to get vaccinated will certainly be a large source of family law litigation in the future. At the present moment, divorced families are struggling with how to maintain parenting time schedules while still being safe, decreasing potential exposure, and figuring out homeschooling responsibilities. At this point, many states have gone virtual for all family court hearings, making it easier for clients to appear from anywhere, but perhaps making it more difficult to communicate with your client during court hearings. While these are issues all lawyers face, it is perhaps even more difficult for family law attorneys because many of the issues are created by the pandemic itself and are rather time sensitive, such as which school the child will attend when there are in person and virtual options or whether children should be vaccinated.
Beyond generally supporting your clients and asking how they are holding up during the pandemic (and keeping a close eye out for any domestic violence issues), make sure your clients know how their rights and obligations have either changed or not changed because of the pandemic. Reference your state and local rules and regulations for gatherings, masks, vaccinations, and school protocols. Make sure your clients know how their parenting time exchanges have changed or whether everything remains the same as before the pandemic. Keep in mind that school choices might be different for the 2021-2022 school year, so getting feedback from your client and scheduling mediation or another form of alternative dispute resolution in anticipation of the fall school choice issue may be helpful. The issue of vaccinations might also need to be mediated before going straight to litigation. Child support or spousal maintenance may have changed due to unemployment or a decrease in income.
While there are certain unique issues divorce attorneys and families are facing during the pandemic, the dedication to helping clients through another difficult and stressful time period remains the same. Make sure your clients are doing okay physically, mentally, and emotionally and start discussing some of the unique challenges they may face in the future. By most accounts, the pandemic will have long lasting implications on employment, schools, and medical decisions- all areas that heavily implicate a divorce case. By thinking about these issues and approaching them with your client now, you may help them decrease their stress and anxiety levels moving forward as we all deal with this unique and challenging time in history.