Open letter regarding co-parenting during COVID-19 from Chief Justice John D. Casey
These are challenging times for everyone, including all staff of the Probate and Family Court and those of the other Trial Court Departments. I want to publicly thank the staff, the bar associations, and all our partners for working together to ensure that we are able to administer justice for those individuals who need us.
It is times like this, when society faces threats once thought unimaginable, that the rule of law is more important than ever. Because of the great dedication and sacrifices of our staff, we remain available to enter orders and enforce existing orders in emergency situations. If you have exceptional/exigent circumstances, you should contact your local court.
Parenting orders are not stayed during this period of time. In fact, it is important that children spend time with both of their parents and that each parent have the opportunity to engage in family activities, where provided for by court order. In cases where a parent must self-quarantine or is otherwise restricted from having contact with others, both parents should cooperate to allow for parenting time by video conference or telephone.
To help parents, and in turn so that parents can help their children, we have amended the mandatory parent education requirements. Information about this can be found at: https://www.mass.gov/advisory/clarification-to-parent-education-procedures-in-section-h-1-of-probate-and-family-court.
There is information on our website about co-parenting during this stressful and difficult time. The link is: https://www.afccnet.org/Coronavirus. In addition, the leaders of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers published these seven guidelines for parents who are divorced/separated and sharing custody of children during the COVID 19 Pandemic. They can be found at: https://www.afccnet.org/Portals/0/COVID19Guidelinesfordivorcedparents.FINAL.pdf?ver=2020-03-17- 202849-133 and on our website.
John D. Casey
Massachusetts Probate and Family Court
Leaders from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and AFCC have released guidelines for coparenting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seven Guidelines for Parents Who Are Divorce/Separated and Sharing Custody of Children During the COVID19 Pandemic
From the leaders of groups that deal with families in crisis:
Susan Myres, President of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML)
Dr. Matt Sullivan, President of Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC)
Annette Burns, AAML and Former President of AFCC
Yasmine Mehmet, AAML
Kim Bonuomo, AAML
Nancy Kellman, AAML
Dr. Leslie Drozd, AFCC
Dr. Robin Deutsch, AFCC
Jill Peña, Executive Director of AAML
Peter Salem, Executive Director of AFCC
1. BE HEALTHY.
Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model good behavior for your children with intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing. This also means BE INFORMED. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media.
2. BE MINDFUL.
Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Don’t leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate.
3. BE COMPLIANT with court orders and custody agreements.
As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.
4. BE CREATIVE.
At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.
5. BE TRANSPARENT.
Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. Certainly both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.
6. BE GENEROUS.
Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible. Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.
7. BE UNDERSTANDING.
There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.
Adversity can become an opportunity for parents to come together and focus on what is best for the child. For many children, the strange days of the pandemic will leave vivid memories. It’s important for every child to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep their child safe.
### See more Coronavirus Resources and Information for family law professionals.
The Strength of the Collaborative Team
Many people choose to engage in the collaborative process for many reasons. One of the reasons I hear over and over again from clients that have chosen this process is that the strength of the team is one of the greatest benefits, but what does that really mean. When you choose to divorce using the collaborative process, it means that you not only have your attorney representing you, but you also have two additional neutral professionals. The financial professional is trained and has a background in finance. Many are either certified divorce financial professionals, CPAs, or financial advisers. These professionals have been trained in the many financial nuances and issues that arise in divorce including the implication of tax law changes, how different types of assets are treated to ensure the best outcome for both parties and how to manage debt after divorce. The financial neutral is not representing either party, but working as a team member to support the family and generate options for the best possible outcome for both parties.
Similarly, the coach facilitator also works in harmony with the financial neutral and both attorneys to ensure that the case is proceeding smoothly. Because the collaborative divorce operates outside the oversight of the court’s case management system, the coach facilitator acts as a kind of case manager for the process. Ensuring that the team stays on task, the parties use their time in meetings efficiently and effectively and most importantly manages the emotion between the divorcing couple so that they can stay on task, focused on obtaining the best possible result for their family. While this role is frequently undervalued by parties, as a professional I have witnessed numerous families fall into the trap of spending hours arguing over a particular issue, those issues are often simply the focal point of an underlying deeply emotional concern. Having a coach facilitator able to work with the parties in order to recognize those emotional triggers, helps to keep them at bay and move the process forward to a more equitable and cost effective resolution.
Congratulations to Jane Schirch
Many congratulations to our friend and colleague, Jane Schirch, who is the 2019 recipient of the NH Collaborative Law Alliance John Cameron Memorial Award. Jane is the forth annual recipient of this award since its creation in 2015 to honor the memory and work of Attorney John Cameron. Jane was honored at the NHCLA annual meeting held on September 26, 2019. T he Cameron Award is given annually to a member of the NHCLA who embodies the spirit and practice of collaborative law. Jane demonstrates the qualities that John embraced in his practice to promote the tenants of the collaborative law practice and to maintain respect and dignity for families during divorce and separation. During Jane’s entire career, she has embraced the practice of collaborative law to keep divorce and parenting matters focused on parents and children, maintain the priorities of the family and to minimize the impacts of divorce and separation. From all that she does through her work in collaborative law, in helping other attorneys who call our office with questions, in teaching, in her parenting coordinator and mediation trainings, Jane always reflects the idea of working together with others to create something great. Jane is a current member of the NHCLA Board of Directors. Shanelaris & Schirch is proud of all Jane’s accomplishments and congratulate her on this honor.
Winner of the Distinguished Pro Bono Service Award
On February 15, 2019 Attorney Schirch was awarded the Distinguished Pro Bono Service Award. Jane is a dedicated attorney who works with determination and compassion for all her clients and we want to congratulate her for the work she performs for pro bono.
Jane has made a difference in the lives of dozens of families and children in crisis, applying her knowledge, skills and empathy to their challenging situations giving them an opportunity to secure a more stable and hopeful future. We are so proud of all her accomplishments.
Modifying child support in light of the February 2018 NH Supreme Court Case of In the Matter of White and White
The law in NH provides for when and how child support payments can be modified. Specifically, the law allows a parent to request a child support modification 1) if at least three years have passed since the most recent support order OR 2) if there has been a substantial change in circumstances.
The law in NH does not provide a list of what equals a “substantial change in circumstances” but if there has been a loss of a job, a significant pay raise, moving from part-time to full-time employment, the emancipation of a supported child turning 18 and graduating from high school, and other such significant changes that now make the support order unfair, you might qualify for a modification.
There can be complex factors involved in whether requesting a modification is the right move for you and this should be a time to consult with an attorney. The attorneys at Shanelaris & Schirch, PLLC will be able to help you understand whether a modification would most likely benefit you.
Additionally, it is important to talk to an attorney soon rather than waiting. The law in NH will not make a support modification retroactive back to the point when the substantial change happened but only back to the point when the other party received notice from the court that you are seeking a modification. This important point was reaffirmed in the February 2018 NH Supreme Court ruling for In the Matter of White and White.
If you believe that you have had a substantial change of circumstances, or if it has been at least three years since your most recent child support order, it is a good time to consult with our attorneys to determine whether requesting a modification from the court is the right move for you. If it is, our attorneys can assist you in petitioning the court for that modification.
Congratulations to our friend and colleague, Cathy Shanelaris on being selected as the 2018 recipient of the Marilla M. Ricker Achievement Award from the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association. Cathy works tirelessly for the advancement of women in the profession and this recognition is so well deserved. Congratulations Cathy!
In New Hampshire, the court has the authority to issue an order for alimony. Alimony is spousal support. It is usually intended that alimony is rehabilitative. In other words, it is a payment for a period of time to allow a spouse to get back on their feet and to become self- sufficient. The current alimony statute in New Hampshire, RSA 458:19, provides that the Court shall make an alimony award if the court finds that the party in need lacks sufficient income, property, or both to provide for that party’s reasonable needs, and that the party from whom alimony is sought is able to meet their reasonable needs while meeting those of the party seeking alimony. This two part test generally is very fact specific. The Court will analyze whether the party seeking alimony is unable to meet their reasonable needs taking into consideration the style of living the parties were living while married. Once the Court determines that a spouse is in need of alimony, the analysis then shifts to the paying spouse to determine whether that spouse can afford to pay alimony. Because this analysis depends a lot on the individual parties and their financial circumstances, there is a wide variety of outcomes that can occur, which does not give parties a lot of direction in determining if alimony will be ordered, and if so, how much will be ordered and for how long will the paying spouse be required to pay the alimony.
Because of the difficulty in predicting outcomes, parties are oftentimes unwilling to reach agreement if they and their attorneys cannot agree on a likely outcome should they go to court on the issue of alimony. To help this uncertainty, there is currently a bill pending in the New Hampshire legislature that would change the alimony statute and would, hopefully, provide more guidance to individuals and attorneys on what a likely outcome would be. The proposed bill introduces a formula which essentially provides that the amount of alimony shall be the lesser of the individual’s needs, or 30% of the difference between the parties’ incomes. The bill also provides clarification that the maximum duration of the alimony award shall be ½ of the duration of the marriage. This bill, if it is passed, is likely to provide additional guidance to practitioners and parties when trying to determine an appropriate alimony award.
Facing a divorce or parenting issue can feel daunting, especially if you feel unable to afford an attorney to help you through the process. In New Hampshire, there are some options that can help you afford an attorney.
One option that the law in New Hampshire allows is for you to use an attorney in a limited-representation capacity. This is a process where you hire an attorney to help with the parts of the legal process with which you are less comfortable handling on your own. The attorneys at Shanelaris & Schirch can assist with such aspects of your divorce, parenting issue, or other family law matter by preparing documents, clarifying the law, helping you make a strategy, as well as other legal services. You handle what you want to handle and then hire one of the Shanelaris & Schirch attorneys for the rest.
In New Hampshire, another option may be available to you if your income and assets are limited. The program that can help is the NH Bar Association Modest Means program and you may qualify for reduced rates from attorneys who participate in the Modest Means program. If you think you may qualify for reduced rates for legal help, your first step is to complete this online pre-qualification form, or you can call the Lawyer Referral Service at 603.229.0002.
If you qualify, you will be referred to an attorney who accepts clients through this program. If you hire that attorney, the attorney will provide you with legal expertise and charge you the hourly rate calculated by the program intake specialists.
The attorneys at Shanelaris & Schirch can help you with your family law issues, and we can help keep those costs affordable for you by working for you on a limited basis or by helping you through the Modest Means program if you qualify.