COVID-19 State-by-State Guide to Family Court and Custody Orders

April 7, 2020Alerts

The following is a state-by-state breakdown of how family courts are operating and the automatic custody orders, if any, entered during the COVID-19 period thus far, including current examples from our attorneys:

General Guidelines: As set forth below, courts in most states are handling matters on a case-by-case, judge-by-judge basis. Many states have not issued standing custody orders and others have left open questions of enforceability.

California (Los Angeles):

  • Court Access:  Courts are only open for exparte emergent applications, which include child abuse, domestic violence and child abduction. It remains to be seen whether a court would qualify other child custody issues as emergent, such as failure to comply with, or seeking modification of, a parenting time exchange because a child has a pre-existing medical condition. Non-emergent filings may be submitted via the relevant dropbox and such filings are supposed to marked filed as of the date received in the dropbox.  However, in reality, the filings have not been timely returned to the filing party. Additionally, non-emergent appearance dates are being extended to dates as far out as June 1, 2020, for example. Likewise, departments within the courts are shifting cases to other departments based upon staffing/under-staffing issues on a case-by-case basis.
  • Custody Orders:  An automatic custody order has not been issued. However, an order was issued modifying the California Code of Civil Procedure such that a party can be compelled to appear via video for a deposition.

California (San Francisco):

  • Court Access: Our San Francisco family law group serves nine (9) counties. Those counties that are set up for e-filing are accepting new filings, while counties without e-filing are not. The counties that accept e-filing are issuing varied return dates for new filings.  Already scheduled dates are being rescheduled on a case-by-case basis. Like many of our courts nationwide, the courts are understaffed so whether applications will be heard, and what applications will qualify as emergent, remains to be seen and may vary by case. As set forth in Los Angeles, above, domestic violence is considered emergent; however, parties are being encouraged to contact the police department in a domestic violence matter rather than the courts. Certain police departments are having in-person contact and others are only engaging in telephonic contact.
  • Custody Orders:  As set forth in Los Angeles, above, a formal custody order has not been issued and the video deposition rule applies.

Florida:

  • Court Access:  Courts are closed but for emergent filings, which includes domestic violence injunction matters and kidnapping matters when a party fleas the state with a child. Like with most states thus far, whether a pending matter will be heard is at the judge’s discretion and varies on a case by case basis. For example, a judge may act as though nothing has happened and another judge may be abating all non-emergent matters until further notice.
  • Custody Orders: An automatic custody order has not been issued.

Georgia

  • Custody Orders: On April 3, 2020, an Executive Order was issued clarifying the Shelter In Place Order issued on April 2, 2020, providing that the Executive Order does not supersede or in any way impact current orders, judgments and decrees, including custodial arrangements. In other words, custody and parenting time orders shall be followed notwithstanding the shelter in place directive.

New Jersey:

  • Court Access: Courts are open for emergent matters and each county has created a specific email address strictly for emergent filings during this period. Certain courts are also still handling non-emergent appearances via telephone and remote platforms, such as Zoom, including Case Management Conferences and oral arguments for pending motions. However, how and if a matter will be heard varies across counties and on a case-by-case basis. For example, I have had Case Management Conferences via telephone in Bergen County and Union County, but had a Case Management Conference adjourned until further notice in Essex County. I have oral arguments scheduled via telephone and Zoom in Essex and Union Counties but was unable to reach chambers for an oral argument in Ocean County. Likewise, non-emergent filings are accepted but each court seems to have different protocols for how documents can be delivered. For example, some courts are not accepting couriers or Federal Express, preferring regular mail, and other courts are accepting filings via drop boxes like Lawyers Service. Certain uniform orders have been entered, including that all discovery and administrative deadlines are extended to April 27, 2020, and all Early Settlement Panels (“ESP”) are adjourned until April 27, 2020, at which time ESP shall resume on a virtual basis.
  • Custody Orders:  An automatic custody order has not been issued.

New York:

  • Court Access: Courts are open but the staff is limited. Only emergent filings are being accepted, which includes domestic violence in family court. Already scheduled non-emergent matters are being handled on a case by case basis. For example, certain judges are holding status conferences via telephone and others are not, and an already pending emergent application unrelated to COVID-19 has been adjourned to an unknown date. Likewise, other currently scheduled dates are being extended, such as a conference scheduled in June and hearing scheduled in August.
  • Custody Orders: An automatic custody order has not been issued.

North Carolina:

  • Court Access:  Courts are open for emergent filings, which include domestic violence and injury to life and limb. Courts are closed to non-emergent matters until April 17, 2020. However, Governor Cooper later issued a stay-at-home order through April 30, 2020. The court has yet to issue an order further extending the closure consistent with the stay-at-home order. In theory, the court will hold telephonic and/or video hearings, but this has not yet been accomplished.
  • Custody Orders:  An automatic custody order has not been issued.

Pennsylvania:

  • Court Access: Early during the COVID-19 period, the Supreme Court issued an order closing court operations except for emergent situations.Thereafter, each county issued its own directive that followed a generally similar protocol, including courts not handling matters other than emergent custody applications, while adjourning/rescheduling dates for other non-emergent matters. The Eastern District has extended its period under the protocol through April 30, 2020. E-filing is still being accepted in counties that have e-filing in place, but courts are not issuing firm return dates.
  • Custody Orders: An automatic order was issued mandating that current custody orders remain in full force and effect. However, whether this is enforceable remains to be seen. For example, will a police officer enforce a custody order when a spouse refuses to exchange their child for parenting time to a former spouse who has more exposure to COVID-19? Additionally, even when current custody orders are in effect, a party may file an emergent application that could modify the same.

Texas:

  • Court Access:  In larger counties (i.e.: Dallas), courts are open for virtual appearances, but courtrooms are closed until May 1, 2020, and protocols have been issued to enable judges to hold hearings via Zoom, including how to enter evidence and the like during such virtual hearings. Larger counties have also issued orders for new filings to include true emergencies, such as domestic violence and enforcing custody orders. However, smaller counties are virtually shut down. Notwithstanding, new filings are accepted even if not emergent, including divorce complaints, modification applications, etc.
  • Custody Orders:  An automatic order was issued mandating that current custody orders remain in full force and effect. However, absent a medical emergency, courts are not addressing custody matters even when parents are following different protocols in response to stay-at-home orders.

Matrimonial attorney organizations have issued helpful guidelines to follow regardless of residency. Visit Fox's Family Law Blog for a helpful set of Guidelines for Divorced or Separated Parents issued by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyer guidelines (AAML) and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC).