Enforcing Your Separation Agreement During the COVID-19 Crisis
There are 21 counties in New Jersey, and all of their courthouses have hearing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This could make it more difficult to enforce your separation agreement. If your co-parent is refusing to abide by the terms of the separation agreement, however, there are still a few ways to take action in these uncertain times.
The Consequences for Violating the Agreement
The separation agreement is more than just a signed agreement between the parties. Once the divorce is final, it becomes part of the court order. This means that there could be penalties from the court if one parent does not follow the agreement. The penalties could include the following:
- Jail time
- Being made to pay attorney’s fees
- Possible modification of the custody agreement
COVID-19 is not an excuse for one parent to decide not to follow the custody agreement. The obligations that they agreed to are still in force, even though life has been turned upside down by the pandemic. They can still face trouble because the pandemic does not get someone out of their legal obligations. The signed document remains valid no matter what else is happening.
The Process for Enforcing the Separation Agreement
However, there is still a process that needs to be followed in order to enforce the separation agreement. There are many things that need to happen between the violation and the court doing something to remedy the situation. Really, the best solution involves not going to court at all. If you can get the other parent to stop their behavior without needing to go in front of the judge, you have won. Otherwise, you will need to go through the stress of court and incur the expense. Sometimes, that is unavoidable.
How to Communicate a Violation
One of the first steps to take when the other parent is not following the separation agreement is to bring the issue to their attention. It is better to have this conversation in writing instead of verbally. This way, you can prove that the conversation occurred. Preferably, this should be in an email because this is easily admissible if you ever get to a hearing in front of the judge. Your email to the other parent should contain the following:
- Send an email to the other parent that details what happened, including relevant dates, places and times
- Explain the section of the separation agreement that they violated and how they violated it
- Request that they comply with the separation agreement in the future
- Tell them that if they do not comply with the agreement in the future, you will be forced to go to court
Documenting a Violation
In order to enforce the separation agreement, you need to document the fact that the other parent has not complied with the terms. It is not enough to simply go to the court and complain that they are not following the agreed-upon terms. To show that they are not complying, you should do the following:
- Keep a log of everything that happened
- Try to have as many pieces of evidence as possible with a timestamp that cannot be faked
- Get pictures, recordings and every other type of documentary evidence that would make it easy for a judge to quickly understand what happened since they may not have a lot of time
How Your Divorce Lawyer Can Help
Along the way, you may need to contact a divorce lawyer who can help you take steps to enforce the separation agreement. The lawyer will talk to you and learn the facts about what happened, asking you questions to help them understand how the other parent broke the court order. The attorney may then do the following on your behalf:
- The attorney could first send a letter to the other parent telling them that they have broken the custody agreement, and since courts are not fully open, this may be the best place to start
- The lawyer may file a motion with the court seeking to hold the other parent in contempt of court
- Your lawyer could make a filing to change the custody agreement to prevent future violations
What May Happen in Court
Note that most physical courthouses are not holding in-person hearings right now due to the pandemic. Judges have very backed-up dockets due to the lockdown, and they may be under a lot of pressure to keep cases moving through the system. Accordingly, here are a few things to remember:
- Make all attempts to solve the matter on your own without going to court. Only file a motion at this time as a last possible resort
- Judges may give you a Zoom or telephonic hearing right now
- Do not expect an in-person multi-day trial
- Judges are still focusing first on dealing with emergency matters. If your matter is not an emergency, it may take a long time to get your matter on the court’s docket
- Only go to court if the other parent’s failure to follow the agreement is serious. If it was a minor issue or a one-time thing, the court may feel as if their time is being wasted
You and your lawyer need to pay close attention to the exact rules for your county and jurisdiction to see if going to court to enforce the separation agreement is even an option. Before threatening to see a judge, it makes sense to understand the status of the court.
What You Can Do
One of the most important things that you need to do to enforce the separation agreement is to be blameless. The other parent wouldn’t have any grounds to complain about you and what you are doing. This would mean that you do the following:
- Follow the exact terms of the separation agreement to the letter
- Make sure to speak to the other parent about every major decision
- If you will be unable to take the children for whatever reason, be sure that you speak to the other parent ahead of time and create a record
- Keep a log of any issues or concerns that the other parent has raised and include all the relevant documentation
This means that, even if the other parent is engaging in a certain course of behavior, you do not break the agreement yourself. The moment that you fail to act according to the custody agreement, the court will also hold you responsible for non-compliance even if the other parent did it first. It is vital to take the high ground when seeking to enforce a separation agreement.
Getting Legal Assistance
Co-parenting has become more challenging than ever during these unprecedented times. However, that does not mean you should have to put up with an ex who is not living up to their obligations. If the other parent is failing to follow your court agreement, you should get in touch with a divorce lawyer at the Law Office of Kelly Berton Rocco in Hackensack, NJ. Call us today at (201) 343-0078 to set up your initial consultation.