How the Coronavirus May Impact Your Divorce and Family Finances in Massachusetts

The coronavirus crisis continues to have a rippling effect on all aspects of life, including placing additional strain on marriages and exacerbating relations between co-parents. Additionally, many people have lost their jobs due to a stalemated economy. The unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 15.1% in April 2020, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. This could jump to a staggering 25% for the state, according to one report. This is in stark contrast to the modest 2.5% Massachusetts unemployment rate for February, 2020.

These factors may cripple many family finances and cause additional strife in high-conflict cases. Here is what you should know about how the coronavirus may impact your divorce and family finances in Massachusetts.

Court Limitations

On May 4, 2020, Massachusetts courts were temporarily closed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The courts were accepting emergency matters, but they were closed to the public. As of June 1, 2020, a new order is effective that opens the courts for emergency and non-emergency case filings, but the physical buildings will still be closed to the public until further notice.

Courts will conduct business virtually, as they have been since the May 4 order, and will continue to do so until at least July 1, 2020. Virtual business may mean handling matters over phone, videoconference, email or similar means. When court personnel are physically present in a courtroom in order to carry out these virtual hearings, no one else is allowed to be present in the courtroom without the judge or clerk-magistrate’s permission.

There is an exception to the virtual-only requirement for emergency matters that cannot be addressed virtually. Each trial court and the appeals court have determined what types of matters are considered “emergency” and have published this information. Only the parties, attorneys, witnesses and other necessary individuals determined by the judge should be physically present at an in-person proceeding at this time.

The statute of limitations and the deadline to file certain motions and other legal pleadings was previously extended by an order, but most of these were been tolled until June 1. People who were not eligible to have their cases heard in May due to only emergency matters being heard may now be seeking relief from the court. Divorce inquiries are also on the rise due to quarantine. There may also be many people who are asking for modifications of their existing court orders due to problems caused by the coronavirus. These factors may create a backlog of cases that may make your divorce or family law case to take longer than usual.

Property Division

Massachusetts uses equitable distribution principles to divide a married couple’s property and debts during a divorce. Massachusetts courts try to reach a fair resolution, but this does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split. The court considers several factors when determining how to divide the property, according to Massachusetts General Law c. 208 § 34, including:

  • The length of the marriage
  • The needs of each spouse
  • The age, health, occupation, amount and sources of income, station, employability and vocational skills of each spouse
  • The opportunity for each spouse to acquire future assets and income
  • Debts of the parties
  • Marital conduct of each spouse

Additionally, the court may consider the contribution each spouse made to the family, including contributions as a homemaker.

The coronavirus crisis may have a significant impact on a couple’s marital estate due to a recent job loss, foreclosure, eviction or other adverse action caused by the financial stress of this situation. Before, couples may have been able to agree that one spouse may keep the house while the other keeps other assets, but the value of these assets or the home may now be greatly reduced. Similarly, retirement plans or other investment portfolios are often subject to division, but the value of these plans may have dropped significantly.

Child Support

Massachusetts uses child support guidelines to determine how much child support to award in a particular case by considering the following factors:

  • Parenting time, such as if both parents spend about equal time with the child, the child primarily resides with one parent 2/3 of the time, or if there is more than one child covered by the child support order and each parent provides a residence for at least one of the children
  • The number of children
  • The gross weekly income of the parents
  • Childcare expenses
  • Healthcare expenses
  • Other support obligations that are paid

In Massachusetts, a parent can request to modify a child support order if any of the following situations occur:

  • There is an inconsistency between the amount of the existing child support order and that which would result by applying the guidelines
  • Previously ordered health care coverage is no longer available or is not available at a reasonable cost or without an undue hardship
  • There is now access to health care coverage that was not previously available
  • A material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred

If a parent has lost a job due to COVID-19, several of these situations may arise, and the parent may be able to ask the court to modify the child support order so that is in line with his or her current income.

If a parent is unemployed or underemployed and the court believes that the parent is capable of working and that he or she is earning less than would be expected with reasonable efforts, the court can consider the parent’s potential earning capacity instead of their actual earnings. The court may consider several factors, including the parent’s education, training, job skills, criminal record, age, health and past employment.

Alimony

Massachusetts courts consider the same factors as those for dividing property when determining whether to award alimony. The court can change the amount or duration of alimony payments if there has been a significant change in the financial situation of one of the parties, if one of the parties dies, or if the spouse receiving alimony remarries or moves in with a partner. If you are receiving alimony and your spouse was laid off, he or she may file a petition to modify the award. The current order is still in effect until a new order is issued.

In Massachusetts, alimony provides economic support to a spouse who was financially dependent during the marriage. Before making an alimony award, the court must consider the dependent spouse's need for alimony, and the payor spouse’s ability to pay alimony. Alimony is not guaranteed. The court will consider a number of factors (listed below) to determine whether to order an alimony award, and for how much. Under the 2012 Massachusetts alimony statute, a guideline is utilized to determine how much alimony should be awarded, under general term alimony. In years past, this calculation was between 30 to 35% of the difference in the parties’ incomes. This calculation has recently shifted due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2018, that eliminated tax deductible alimony for new divorces, effective on January 1, 2019. Factors in determination of an alimony award include:

  • The duration of the marriage
  • Age and health of the parties
  • Economic and noneconomic contributions made by the parties during the marriage
  • Income, employment, and employability of the parties
  • The lifestyle the parties enjoyed during the marriage and their ability to maintain it after divorce
  • Lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage or contributions
  • Other factors the court considers relevant

Get Help

The COVID-19 situation continues to cause major disruptions and may impact your family law or divorce case. We can help explain your rights and options moving forward.

To speak with a lawyer about a prenuptial agreement, contact Mavrides Law in Boston, MA. To schedule an in-depth initial consultation, call 617-723-9900 or contact the firm at info@mavrideslaw.com

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