Legal Concerns During the Coronavirus Pandemic
As the Coronavirus shutdowns continue and hundreds, if not thousands, of local folks find themselves staying at home without income, little attention has been paid to legal concerns that should be addressed.
I am basically a family law lawyer, so there are many areas of concern I am not prepared to address. For example, I know nothing about bankruptcy, and I really am not in a position to advise about contacting credit card companies and mortgage holders about forbearance on paying those debts. But these are topics I do know about:
Child support – Child support in Kansas is basically formulated on the basis of three factors: the ages of the children, the income of the parents and the time the children spend with each parent. Potentially, each one of these factors could change during this crisis. The critical issue is that motions to modify child support are not effective retroactively.
Parents paying or receiving child support whose income change due to loss of job, or any other factor, should immediately file a motion to modify the support. Even if parents believe they will return to work soon, they should file a motion to modify. Given the current situation, nothing is certain and in many cases prospects of future employment are probably speculative at best.
Also, if parents have opted to modify a court-ordered parenting plan because of changes in work schedules, or any other reason, they need to know that the court orders remain enforceable. Conflict and future legal fees can be avoided during periods of agreement if parents file agreed motions to conform the court’s parenting orders to what they have worked out between themselves.
Spousal maintenance (alimony) – like child support, motions to modify spousal maintenance are not effective retroactively. When the income of a party paying or receiving maintenance changes, parties cannot simply agree to reduce (or increase) support levels without legal complications. Old orders are enforceable until changed by the Court. So, for example, if Party A asks for a reduction in support to be paid to Party B by say $200 a month, and Party B agrees, a year later when Party B is angry with Party A, the old orders are effective and Party A could be ordered to pay Party B the $1,200 in unpaid support plus Party B’s attorney fees.
Estate Planning – No one wants to think the worst will happen. But, we are in the midst of a pandemic with millions expected to be infected and thousands expected to die. I encourage everyone to take steps now to control as best they can what would happen in the event a worst-case scenario occurs.
Powers of Attorney – If someone become sick and incapacitated, there are two immediate concerns: who makes healthcare decisions if the person cannot make them; and, who manages the finances and other affairs if the person is unable to do so? A power of attorney for healthcare authorizes another person (or persons) to make healthcare decisions for folks who are unable to communicate those decisions themselves.
Similarly, a power of attorney for financial or other matters can be used to designate agents to manage ones personal and financial affairs. Further, for parents, a power of attorney can also be used to authorize other folks to care for children if the parents are unable to do so.
The critical point about powers of attorney is that they all must be executed prior to a person’s incapacity. Thus, these are things folks should be doing now, just in case something horrible should happen in the future.
And, for the worst-case kind of scenario, folks should also consider drafting living wills and wills. A living will is the document where a person gives instructions to healthcare providers about the measures the person wants taken, or not taken, in the event a person is in a terminal condition. A will (Last Will and Testament) is the document where folks give instructions about what should happen to their property upon their death.
In the true worst- case scenario – death – folks need to know there are deadlines for filing wills with probate (6 months), and procedures for dealing with creditors. The process is complicated. The important point to remember is that action must be taken to protect assets and avoid unnecessary costs. Delay in addressing these matters and getting sound legal advice is not wise.
Cabin Fever – The unfortunate fact is that during the enforced quarantines and orders to stay at home issued by multiple levels of government, things are going to get tense in many households. There will be many reasons for that, and for this discussion the reasons are not critical. A basic understanding of some of the steps folks can take in those instances is important.
Petitions for Protection from Abuse – When situations get extreme and abusive, the courts are still open for folks to file emergency motions for protection from abuse. Those orders can include orders that one party move from a home, that parties not have contact with each other, and can also make provisions for care of children if they are at risk. It is helpful to remember that folks do not need to be married to get a protection from abuse against another person. These orders can be obtained against a current or former intimate partner or a household member.
Divorce/Separate Maintenance – The courts are also open for the filing of divorce or separate maintenance petitions. Many of the emergency measures available when filing for orders of protection from abuse are also available in a divorce action. The primary difference of course is that folks must be married to get such orders.
Obviously, there are other steps folks can and should take in emergency situations. For example, if things are unreasonably tense, temporary separations can lead to reduced anxiety and restored relationships. Or, if there are threats of violence, calls to police are appropriate.