The Storm at Home
Family law attorneys advise calm, patience, and kindness to those dealing with domestic issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown.
by Bill Donahue

“Familiarity breeds contempt.” 
The English poet Chaucer wrote this elegant line more than six centuries ago. His words now seem almost prophetic, particularly for couples who are stuck at home, locked in a contentious, combative, or otherwise less than healthy union. 
The statewide lockdown instituted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has created a tough situation for anyone whose relationship was on the brink prior to the pandemic. The related stress and strain has the potential to result in an explosive aftermath, according to family law attorney Sheryl R. Rentz.
“When you have people living together 24 hours a day during a stressful time in the world and in your life, the results are not good,” says Rentz, the founder of The Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, which is based in Ardmore. “Domestic violence has increased significantly. … Unfortunately, many people are at their boiling point, without the ability to move out, especially if they are not working, and the courthouses [are] closed except for absolute emergencies. Add to the stress [the fact that] their children are now attending school virtually and the parties now must manage homeschooling to their already traumatic lives.”
Rentz and other family law attorneys suggest the number of incoming calls and emails has diminished since the start of the lockdown. That’s not because their services are no longer in demand; quite the contrary. Rather, it seems people are waiting to act until the threat associated with the virus subsides.
“There’s so much uncertainty as to what’s going on,” says Jeffrey A. Liebmann of Liebmann Family Law in Newtown. “People are putting things off until this is all over with, until life gets back to a little more normalcy. Volatility in the [financial] market is also freaking people out; you have some people whose 401(k)s have taken a 20 percent hit. We’re all just trying to get through this. The uncertainty makes it increasingly difficult.”

‘The New Normal’
While Liebmann and Rentz have seen a notable decline in requests to file for divorce, the number of divorce inquiries remains high. Once the stay-at-home restrictions are reduced or lifted and people return to work and have the means to move out, the number of actual divorce filings is likely to increase. 
Divorce issues aside, both attorneys have seen an uptick in questions coming in regarding other aspects of family law.
“The emails and calls that are occurring involve issues of child custody dispute, support, and ‘How are the losses in my retirement account being accounted for?’” Rentz says. “Support is difficult for the payors, as many have been laid off, and for the payee, as they rely on the money. Also, the stimulus check may have gone into one person’s account and they did not share the check with the other party.”
Breaches of custody agreements can be particularly vexing. Liebmann suggests a number of reasons behind these violations. Some individuals are withholding children out of fear that their children might contract the virus. Others may be using the virus as an excuse to be vindictive, to inflict pain on a former spouse. 
For the time being, he adds, there are few “quick remedies.”
“In some cases, one parent is working outside of the home and the other parent is not [working] or working from home,” Rentz says. “The parent staying at home often feels the children are safer with them and that the other parent inadvertently can infect the child. Or one parent lives with an elderly person and they feel that exchanging the children will increase the risk of infection to their older family member. The virtual schooling has also been raised, as one parent believes they handle the schooling issue more efficiently and effectively than the other parent.” 
Rentz advises clients to always honor court orders. In a few situations she has filed an emergency petition to modify the custody orders, at least on a temporary basis.  
In nearly every aspect of human life, people are asking the same question: “What happens next?” At the moment, courts are holding some conferences remotely, and question marks remain over when courtrooms will re-open to handle pressing family law issues. Likewise, no one seems quite sure if processes will change given the severity and duration of the disruption. 
“I tell all my clients to stay tuned, and I will keep them informed as the information is disseminated to me,” Rentz adds. “Clients look to their attorneys for answers, and right now we do not know the new normal.”

Looking Ahead
For people who are dealing with difficult situations at home—an unhealthy marriage or abuse, for example—the most difficult aspect of the COVID-19 crisis stems from the fact that progress has ceased entirely. They feel stuck, and rightly so, because the entire process has essentially ground to a halt. Others are not coping well with another new reality: isolation.
“Loneliness and fear cause people to act in ways that they normally would not,” Rentz says. “After the restrictions are eliminated or reduced, attorneys will be busy with damage control and trying to resolve cases. I advise clients to proceed through this time in the same manner as they would want to be treated: Act smartly; don’t just react.”
Liebmann’s advice is similar, yet increasingly pertinent: Be kind.
“Since this has begun, I have tried to abide by the motto of ‘help each other out and be good to one another,’” Liebmann says. “You have people whose businesses have shuttered; at least I’m able to work remotely, so I feel like I’m OK. But everyone is stressed, which is why I think it’s important to try to help each other out. That includes my world, in how I’m dealing with families who are going through difficult times. 
“This is not going to last forever,” he continues. “Aside from the bad things you see and read about in the news, it has been heartwarming to see and hear people making a point to order from restaurants that are suffering, and to help other people wherever they can. It reinforces my belief in humanity.”

Putting Families First
The Greater Philadelphia Area boasts a number of law firms that specialize in family law, some of which are listed here. Whether someone has questions about divorce, a custody dispute, or some other important domestic matter, the highly skilled attorneys at these firms are eager to help. 

Ciccarelli Law Offices
West Chester 

Funge Family Law LLC
Philadelphia | Radnor

Kardos Rickles & Hand

Law Offices of Jennifer J. Riley
Blue Bell | Wayne

Law Offices of Joseph D. Visco

Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz

Liebmann Family Law

Mazaheri Law LLC

Repko Law LLC

Trayer Law

Woosley Naragon LLC
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, May 2020.