Separately Together During COVID-19: Dos & Don’ts For Successful Separations

One of my favourite bits of humour to come out of the pandemic is a photo of a long line of weary men and women– of every age, shape and size– snaking along a sidewalk and up several steps of a massive building. At the top of the steps stands the sign “Divorce Court.”

COVID & Divorce

I’ve heard from several friends and neighbours, “you’re a family lawyer? Wow, are you going to be busy when COVID is over,” suggesting that couples being forced to live together under the same roof without our ordinary freedoms is going to produce a tidal wave of separations.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But the pressure of living together under the same roof whilst separating did not start with COVID. Many of our clients come to us in this living arrangement, pandemic or no pandemic. Not everyone physically separates at the beginning of their separation journey; sometimes it isn’t affordable or there isn’t alternative accommodation; and sometimes a couple just isn’t quite sure if they want a permanent separation yet.

In some cases, couples are separated “sort of,” but still living together in the same residence. In these instances, some things may be done individually, perhaps meals or laundry; some things aren’t, perhaps for the benefit of the kids – especially if they are young; in some cases family finances remain jointly held.

What To Do If You Find Yourself Here

I don’t intend to give a full list of dos and don’ts if the pandemic has put you in this “sort of separated” situation, but here are a few recommendations. These can help reduce potential disagreements and ultimately save money on legal fees once you turn to the legal system to settle “kids, money, and property” issues permanently.

  1. Don’t Settle Things On Your Own. You need legal advice including an understanding of the issues as well as the legal principles and formulas used to settle them. You also need full financial disclosure from each other before you are in any position to make informed choices. I have written extensively about this in other blogs. See for example my blog entitled “Kicking the Tires”.

  2. You Do Have To Make Temporary Arrangements To Carry Through Your Continued Joint Occupation Of The Residence, whether involving parenting your kids, your privacy, your household responsibilities or money issues. Don’t try to nail everything down. Make them temporary and perhaps “without prejudice” so that when you access legal help, there won’t be a complaint from your spouse that “we agreed” on this already. Don’t go to the internet and print “fill in the blanks” agreements.

  3. You Can’t Divide A Child The Way You May Section Off A Walnut. A few parents can develop a rigorous schedule on which each looks after the children and they get their own exclusive time with them in the residence. For most, this isn’t workable or practical. Their children may not even understand why mommy is upstairs, daddy is downstairs and they have to stay in the downstairs rec room when we are with daddy. Common sense and flexibility is important.

  4. Keep The Children Out Of It. There is a time and place to explain what is going on between parents. Don’t involve your children in parental discussions. Don’t make them messengers between parents. Don’t share with them your frustrations and don’t discuss with them legal issues, especially asking the question “who do you want to live with?”

  5. Keep Discussions Polite, Relatively Brief And Constructive. Don’t dwell on history or accusations.

  6. Texting Back And Forth Is Not A Good Alternative. If you can maintain a civil attitude and discuss matters directly with one another, do so. Sometimes I get pages upon pages of screenshots taken from smartphones for use in family court proceedings. They can be so numerous, hard to read and incomplete as to render them quite useless. There are a number of software apps out there, such as Our Family Wizard. These apps facilitate communication between spouses, set up calendars that both can see, and even allow for sharing of important documents.

  7. Try Not To Do Unilateral Things. Unless your spouse has consented, try to refrain from making large expenditures, large charges on lines of credit or credit cards, or other unilateral decisions. Many people continue to combine paycheques into their joint bank account and that may be fine in the short run. Beware that it will end one day and a more formal and separate financial arrangement will take its place, including possible support obligations in place of combining finances.

  8. Don’t Incur New Future Obligations If You Can Avoid It. For example, signing an offer to purchase a new home before you legally settle property issues will create a crisis as the closing date approaches. Same with other big ticket items such as cars.

  9. Be Careful Of What You Say Or Post On Social Media.

  10. This Isn’t The Time To Flaunt New Romantic Relationships.

  11. Keep Grandparents And Other Important Extended Family Members In Touch With The Kids.

  12. Separation Doesn’t End Third Party Obligations. If, for example, you have co-signed a car loan for your spouse’s car, you are not entitled to be removed from that loan simply because you have separated. It may be possible to obtain a refinancing of that loan or a release from the bank, however, that has to be explored during negotiations.

  13. Remember: The Law Does Not Give “Half” Of Your Property To Your Partner. And Kids don’t get to decide at age 12 with whom they want to live. Please see some of my previous blogs about both of these major misconceptions.

As I have pointed out, this isn’t an extensive list. Above all, get legal advice. There is no need to wait until the pandemic is over. It’s important.

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About Charles Morrison

Charles Morrison is a family law expert with over 35 years of experience. In addition to negotiating separation agreements and marriage contracts he is an enthusiastic supporter of Collaborative Practice. Charles regularly appears at the Ontario Court of Justice as well as the Superior Court of Justice locally and beyond.

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