SIDESBAR WINTER 2021 - 15

MONTGOMERYBAR.ORG

Family Court Practice
Through the Pandemic
By Lindsay H. Childs, Esq., Vice-Chair, Family Law Section

W

hen Governor Wolf 's stay-athome order went into effect
in March, many business
operations came to a screeching halt, and
then remained dormant for weeks or even
months. Not so for family law practice.
And especially not in Montgomery
County.
Of course, many court dates were
postponed temporarily, and some
parties needed to pause their settlement
negotiations as a result of economic
uncertainty. After all, there was risk in
agreeing to a financial settlement that was
based upon an appraisal of the marital
residence that was completed in January
and retirement account balances from
February. Many people did not know
whether they would still have a job a
few weeks later, so committing to a set
amount of alimony was scary.
But COVID-19 created many other
issues for families that simply needed to
be addressed right away. Phone calls and
emails from clients poured in. Can I leave
my house to drive my child to a custody
exchange? Can I withhold custody of
my child from my ex-wife who is an
emergency room physician and is exposed
to COVID-19 on a daily basis? How am
I supposed to pay my support obligation
if I have been laid off? Do I have to share
the stimulus check with my soon-to-beex-husband?
Many of the first orders surrounding
the judicial emergency resulting from the
pandemic included Emergency Custody
and Protection from Abuse cases as
" essential functions. " But thankfully, the
leaders in Montgomery County realized
that there were many other family law
issues that really could not wait.
It certainly helped that Montgomery
County already had an established e-filing
system through the Prothonotary. Yet

additional protocols and procedures
needed to be implemented in some areas,
and that was accomplished swiftly. When
it became clear that the statewide system
for filing complaints for support was not
working, our county Domestic Relations
Section adapted to allow filing by email
or physical drop-box. And a Public
Health Emergency Court Cover Sheet was
created to streamline emergency filings
relating to the pandemic.
Luckily, family court matters do not
use juries, so many judges who typically
sit in other divisions of the court and who
were unable to hold trials without juries
were recruited to assist in family court.
It was " all hands on deck " for custody,
support, divorce and PFA matters, and a
new triage system was established. As a
result, many family court conferences and
hearings were actually being scheduled
more quickly than they had been prepandemic. Without the strong leadership
from our court and county offices, many
families would have been encountering
increased uncertainty and delay in an
already stressful time. And family law
practitioners could have been struggling
to adequately continue the representation
of their clients.
Of course, even with helpful new
procedures in place, family law practice
was not back to normal. With many
novel and fact-specific issues arising, it
was sometimes difficult to advise clients
on what they should do or what they
could expect a judge to decide. The
community of family lawyers within the
Montgomery Bar Association and other
organizations came together to provide
feedback and support to each other.
Many discussions took place over listserv
or group text, as attorneys tried to reach a
consensus on how to appropriately handle
the various scenarios that were suddenly
being confronted on a daily basis. And

some attorneys and their clients turned to
alternative dispute resolution as a way to
address the onslaught of new issues.
For months, it has seemed that as
soon as official guidance was issued or
a consensus was reached on one topic,
another question evolved to take its place.
In June, we grappled with whether one
parent should get to take a child out of
state to her family-owned beach house
in Maryland if the other parent was not
allowed to take the child to a hotel in
the Poconos. In August, we debated
whether the judges would give preference
to in-person or virtual learning, and
whether they would deem learning pods
as unnecessary exposure to others or ideal
for socialization. Now, we are faced with
questions about how to handle holiday
travel when there are state-imposed
quarantines that would affect the nontraveling parent's custodial time after the
holiday.
The timeliness of these ever-evolving
issues inspired the course planners for
this year's Toby Lynn Dickman Seminar,
the annual practicum organized by the
MBA's Family Law Section. Lydia Terrill
and Justin Soulen put together a program
titled, " Parenting in a Pandemic, " which
included a panel of Montgomery County
judges, masters, practitioners, and court
representatives. Over 100 family law
practitioners attended the virtual seminar
on December 16, 2020.
Although the specific issues
surrounding COVID-19 will hopefully
become moot in the near future, it will
be interesting to see whether any of the
court procedures that were implemented
as a result of the pandemic will become
permanent. But either way, it is a true
testament to the dedication of our
bench and bar that the court was able
to continue meeting the demands of the
families in our community.
WINTER 2021 15


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SIDESBAR WINTER 2021

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