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Divorce in Austin, Texas During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Below is an article in the Austin American Statesman, highlighting the divorce environment after two weeks of the corona virus shutdown in Austin. While we practice principally in Williamson County, we've been handling divorce on both Williamson and Travis County for over 20 years. With the exception of seniors (often referred to as "grey divorce") which is exploding, divorce has been declining for years as the marriage age has increased and cohabitating is now common. In fact, cohabitating has opened up a whole new need for legal help: when cohabitating couples break up, especially with children. For example, we've written blogs about unmarried father's rights. Furthermore, sheltering in place, travel restrictions, and loss of income due to COVID19 has opened up a myriad of questions from clients about visitation schedules, child support, spousal support and other related questions, which we have been blogging about here as well.

The coronavirus shutdown has led to more family time, which might be welcomed by couples who get along, but might feel like prison to those whose differences have been aggravated by unavoidable around-the-clock interaction.

Without the benefits of alone time, it might stand to reason that more married couples would call it quits now than in ordinary times.

Yet, at least for now in Travis County, the opposite is true.

Divorce petitions filed in the two weeks through the end of March decreased by 46% from the same period last year and by 36% from that period in 2018, according to the district clerk's office.

Divorce lawyers, who clocked long hours in the winter to keep up with new filings that poured in after the holidays, say their phones have all but stopped ringing. Attorney Jimmy Evans took out a radio spot and separately is offering discounts on some uncontested divorces, up to $1,000.

So, maybe, is it possible these shelter-in-place orders are actually strengthening marriages by forcing couples to work out their differences? Not so fast.

Experts in the area of divorce say it's too early to draw a connection between the ongoing health crisis and the lasting power of a couple's nuptials. However, they suspect anyone who had intended to separate from their spouse before the lockdown still desires to do so but might have pulled back for financial reasons after deciding they no longer can afford to leave.

In the past six weeks, more than 725,000 Texans have filed for unemployment benefits. Some are still employed but working reduced hours, while others, including many in the food service industry, are completely out of work after closures of bars and restaurants.

"We really don't know, but it does seem that we will probably see a decrease, at least temporarily, in divorce rates," said Solangel Maldonado, a Seton Hall University law professor. "People are losing jobs and can't afford to move out."

Travis County recorded 108 divorce filings from March 16 through March 30 - a two-week sample that began on the first business day after much of the greater Austin area began working from home. It accounts for 5% of the yearly divorce total. The numbers will remain relatively low, lawyers predict, until the economy picks back up, and couples itching to separate restore some financial normalcy.

"People might have to put divorce off for years because of the economic effects," said Joanna L. Grossman, a Southern Methodist University law professor who specializes in family law.

This recession, economists say, will hit harder and could last longer than the 2008 financial crisis when the stock market was down for more than a year. That event - triggered by the reckless practice of banks loosening regulations that locked homeowners into mortgages they couldn't pay - provides clues to how marriages will fare in this time of the coronavirus.

Annual divorce rates began increasing in the United States in the mid-1990s and peaked in 2008, the year of the market crash, at about 21 divorces per 1,000 married women. The next year, when people were hurting financially, that number dipped to 19.5, according to a survey by American Community Surveys. The reduction equated to 90,000 fewer divorces.

Although the stock market recovered, U.S. divorce rates never did: From 2008 to 2016, the rate dropped 18%, according to a study by University of Maryland researcher Philip Cohen. He attributed the dip to a married population that is increasingly older and more educated, which both lead to marriage stability.

In this present economic crisis, it follows logically that the divorce rate will dip further - at least until couples get tired of seeing each other and save up enough money to split.

"I haven't noticed people calling and saying, 'I can't do this another minute, get me out of here,'" local attorney Gregory Hitt said. "But once people settle into this routine, there's going to be a pent-up demand when we return to normal."

Travis County had 4,611 divorce filings in 2019. There were 4,455 in 2018. This year's total so far is 2,077 - which includes the annual spike seen in January and February after couples get through the holidays.

Filing a divorce petition in Travis County costs $313, plus an extra $15 if children are involved.

Uncontested splits can be resolved without lawyers. Yet, that process has become more challenging in these times without access to documents at the Travis County Law Library, which has been closed since March 17. Services are still available by phone and email.

Evans, the attorney with the $1,000-off radio advertisement, said he has seen an uptick of "stir crazy" people requesting an uncontested divorce.

The civil courthouse is closed for all but emergency matters, meaning anyone needing to go before a judge to finalize a divorce needs to do it via remote videoconference.

Mediation, for those divorces moving forward at this time, also is happening virtually. The stress of divvying up money, assets and child custody has been intensified by the financial unknowns, like, for instance, the projected value a year from now of a couple's 401(k).

"What we're seeing is a lot more uncertainty that just flat out didn't exist six weeks ago," local attorney and mediator Kathleen Coble said. "You're putting them in a situation that's already a pressure cooker and multiplying it by 10."

Source: Ryan Autullo, Austin American Statesman, 4/3/2020

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