Getting a “Pandemic-Style” Divorce
2020 has been a long, strange, and difficult year. Our lives have been upended and in we are all forced to confront new challenges and find new solutions to the way we operate. Getting divorced in Wisconsin is no exception. And, while 2021 will hopefully be better for all of us, it will be quite some time before the COVID-19 pandemic will be sufficiently in the rearview mirror. The following is a summary of “What has changed?,” and “What has stayed the same?,” in the southeast Wisconsin divorce realm. If you have other specific questions, please feel free to contact Seufert Law to schedule an appointment to meet with me.
1. Can I still file for divorce in the same method as before?
Yes. With the Wisconsin court system’s universal adoption of electronic filing a few years ago, your ability to file for divorce is unaffected by the pandemic, thankfully.
2. How do I meet with my attorney?
Just as many other businesses have adapted to holding virtual meetings via online platforms such as Zoom and Google Teams, the legal industry has done the same, although the level of proficiency tends to vary between lawyers. Speaking for myself, I will do whatever I can to meet you in a manner that is most comfortable and convenient. This year, that has meant that most clients have chosen to schedule Zoom meetings with me. Assuming a good web connection (please, don’t schedule a Zoom meeting with your lawyer while you are driving in your car), I find that I am able to consult and discuss legal matters via Zoom just as easily as I was before. Plus, it is often more convenient (because clients don’t need to spend the additional time driving to my office). The Zoom platform allows me to share files in real-time with clients as I discuss the content in them, so it is a very effective platform.
3. How do I appear in court with my attorney?
Both Milwaukee and Waukesha County Circuit Court are currently conducting all hearings via Zoom. Many other counties do as well (although if you are in Ozaukee County, many of those matters are still held in person, as of this writing). The judge’s clerk sends out your Zoom login credentials before the hearing, and everyone appears remotely at their appropriate time. Trials via Zoom are a little challenging, but rules have been adopted to permit the electronic presentation of evidence (including exhibits), and the more that everyone becomes comfortable with the platform, the more streamlined and efficient it becomes. Just remember, even though you are appearing remotely (often from home), it is still a formal court hearing! Judges expect litigants to dress appropriately, and be in a setting that is free of distraction (no cars, no children running around, no eating).
4. Are the courts running on time?
Depends on your definition of “on time.” Last spring when lockdown first occurred, all cases over a two-month stretch were postponed. That backed up many court calendars for several months – especially trials! The good news is that most judges are “back on schedule” now and I find little difference (between pre-pandemic scheduling and now) with most judges’ calendars. But, if you need a final, contested divorce hearing, you will need to prepare to wait. Because court trials take up such a large chunk of time on a court’s calendar, those dates are often several months off. Additionally, while conducting hearings remotely via Zoom can be highly efficient, “technical difficulties” can occasionally occur, and greatly hamper a judge’s ability to move through his/her court calendar on a particular day.
5. Do I need to appear for my final divorce hearing?
Wisconsin state law has long required both parties to a divorce to appear before the judge for a final court hearing, before the judge can grant the parties a judgment of divorce. That law remains unchanged, even though court appearances are no longer in-person. Significantly, however, both Waukesha County Circuit Court and Milwaukee County Circuit Court have adopted new rules this year to permit a “divorce-by-affidavit” process, which allows parties and their attorneys to bypass the need to appear at the final hearing. As long as you (a) are represented by a lawyer (or use a lawyer-mediator), (b) sign and file all of the final divorce paperwork (i.e., financial declarations for both parties, a signed written agreement, and a proposed divorce judgment), and (c) sign an affidavit that affirms the basic biographical details of your matter and understanding of the terms of your agreement, your judge will be able to divorce you without the need for you to take off of work to attend the hearing (or pay your lawyer to show up in your place). This is a fantastic new option for divorcing spouses, designed to make the process more accessible, more convenient, and more affordable, and it is my hope that the process remains in place even after the pandemic ends.
6. Do I still need to get my documents notarized if meeting in-person is difficult or impossible right now?
Certain legal documents require in-person notarization. In family law, the most common are affidavits, and deeds (for transfer of property interests). In the pandemic, that obligation has not changed, for the most part. A relatively new law, 2019 Wisconsin Act 125, allows certain documents to be notarized remotely. However, the types of documents required in family court do not apply. In certain limited circumstances, an electronic signature or an “affirmation” is acceptable, but unfortunately, we cannot wholly escape notarization requirements. Over the course of this year, I have worked with many clients to devise a safe method to secure notarization. Some clients are comfortable coming into my office and getting their documents notarized just the same as before. Others have preferred a nearly contactless notary process – with either myself or my legal assistant coming outside to a client’s vehicle to witness a signature.
Geoff Seufert, a Family Law Attorney, lives in the Lake Country area of Wisconsin. He focuses his practice in the communities of Hartland, Pewaukee, Oconomowoc and Delafield. Geoff has 15 years of experience in Family Law (specializing in divorce, child custody & support, and divorce mediation). For more information about Attorney Seufert’s practice, take a look at the Seurfert Law website.