January is typically the “busy season” for family lawyers, but Dallas divorce lawyers are anticipating the first few months of 2021 to be even busier than normal. Pressures related to stay-at-home orders, quarantine, working from home, and online learning have pushed some married couples to the brink. Maybe they’ll hold things together for the holidays, but once the gifts are unwrapped and decorations tucked away, divorce filings are likely to begin.
“Based on my 28 years of practice, experience tells me that we will see an increase in divorce and separations as a result of COVID-19,”
Michelle O’Neil, a family lawyer and partner with O’Neil Wysocki – Family Law, says it has been business as usual throughout most of the pandemic, other than an uptick in modifications related to custody due to upheavals in work and school routines. But her firm, as well as many others, are preparing for this to change. “Based on my 28 years of practice, experience tells me that we will see an increase in divorce and separations as a result of COVID-19,” O’Neil says. “The forced togetherness from quarantining at home will become a strain on relationships that are already strained. We expected to see a big boom in divorces in the past few months but haven’t seen as much as we thought. I anticipate this to change. Getting through the holidays, new year/new me resolutions, and making the decision in case we need to shut down again will be the reasons for the increase.”
While most of the process of filing for and getting a divorce will remain the same next year, the Texas Supreme Court is implementing a new requirement starting January 1, 2021, that requires proof for every claim made in a divorce to be exchanged shortly after filing. Prior to this rule going into effect, divorcing couples could make claims that “stand up in court” without showing evidential proof of the claim immediately. Starting next year, for every claim you make, you’ll need documents to support that claim immediately after the suit is filed.
“Shortly after filing a new divorce, both parties will be required to exchange all documents that support their claims,” O’Neil says. “Before this change, we could request documents in the normal discovery process and delay gathering those until much later in the case. Now, the courts are going to require—upfront—all tax returns, real estate documents, pay stubs, bank accounts, insurance documents, and so forth. Even an adultery claim will need to be substantiated, such as with pictures, emails, or text messages.”
O’Neil says although gathering these documents will make it more burdensome for couples to file for a divorce, the idea behind it is to keep divorces from dragging on too long due to discovery and to keep couples that “fight over every little thing” out of the courthouse. “Judges are essentially asking both parties to do their homework,” she says. “Divorce is difficult enough when dealing with the emotional side of it, so this adds an extra layer of complication when you have to deal with the business side of it at the same time. We generally advise our clients to have an idea of their assets and debts, get to know the kids’ teachers and their school routines, and be as prepared as possible, so this is placing an additional burden on couples who file for divorce.”
If you know divorce is inevitable, is it best to file before December 31, 2020, or just wait until the new year? “A lot of family lawyers would probably rather their clients file for divorce now under the old rules we are all familiar with,” O’Neil says. “I think cases filed early next year will be the guinea pig of sorts for this new process, so from that standpoint, it’s better to file before the first of the year. Couples need to be aware that the time required for discovery costs money, so the cost of a divorce could potentially go up in the new year for those with complex estates and those who will have a large burden of proof.”
However, O’Neil says that no matter what the rules of divorce may be, the best advice she has on when to file for divorce is to do whatever is best for you and your family. “I don’t think this new ruling should affect the end of the year or the holidays,” she says. “It’s rarely a good idea to announce your divorce over Christmas dinner, especially this year with everything we have all been through. For many, getting past the holidays and back in the routine of school will be better timing for working through life changes.”
Anyone who has been involved in a contentious divorce wants an attorney who is willing to get in the arena and fight for them. This is exactly what you get with O’Neil Wysocki – Family Law. Known as the street fighters of litigation, they try more bench and jury trials than any other family law firm in the state. O’Neil has developed a reputable niche in family law appeals. Her work extends further than appealing to a higher court about what may be deemed an unfair decision in family law courts. She is often called upon by lawyers to co-counsel cases to assist with complex family law matters. She is known for her family law expertise in preparing and presenting motions for summary judgment, drafting trial briefs on special legal issues, creating the court’s charge, and attending charge conferences, requesting findings of fact and drafting proposed findings, and preserving appellate error. O’Neil has tried more than 26 family law jury trials and handled more than 75 cases in the Texas appellate courts. Named a Best Lawyer in Dallas in D Magazine multiple times, O’Neil is Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.