On March 4, 2020, when Governor Newsom declared a State of Emergency in California in response to COVID-19, most Californians had no idea what the broad sweeping implications of this pandemic would mean. As months have gone by, households are facing a new slew of challenges including unemployment, furloughs, reduction of income, and increased family responsibilities. Coupled with a slow-down in court operations, family law practitioners have grappled with ways to swiftly and effectively assist clients with meeting their obligations and the many new responsibilities they have encountered in connection with the pandemic. No truer has this struggle presented itself than in the need to modify spousal, child or family support.
Luckily, the Judicial Council began addressing the need for practitioners to act quickly for their clients. Beginning in April 2020, the Council issued “Emergency Rules Related to COVID-19” covering numerous practice areas including the incredibly important Emergency Rule 13, which provided some relief to parties seeking a modification (or termination) of support. Enacted on April 10, 2020, and effective until 90 days after the Governor lifts the State of Emergency declaration, Rule 13 allows judges the discretion to backdate a support modification to the date the requesting party served the other party. This is a distinct deviation from the general rule allowing judges to backdate to the date the request was filed with the court.
Since Emergency Rule 13 took effect, the courts have made significant strides to provide access to litigants including certain technological advancements, increased sanitization and gradual increased staffing. However, seemingly small deviations, like Rule 13, can have great impact for parties facing a loss of income or even a delayed unemployment check. There are continued delays in filing and processing times, so this rule allows parties some measure of relief to seek modification of support as close to their loss of income as possible, especially when coupled with Emergency Rule 12 mandating electronic service for represented litigants.
Of course, Rule 13 does not provide immediate financial relief, if any, for parties disputing a support amount, and judges have discretion to modify support to a later date (after filing the request), but even a 24-hour delay in gaining access to the courts can mean a late rent or credit card payment, or even less money for groceries for our clients. While we have all seen spouses, partners and families work together in this time of crisis, the stress of uncertainty still requires family law attorneys to act fast for their clients. Rule 13, and additional Emergency Rules are evolving, just as we are, to the new challenges in these unprecedented times.
About the Author:
Joseph L. Urbanski is a Partner at Johnston, Kinney & Zulaica, a firm specializing in family law, estate planning, probate and tax controversies. Joseph is a Certified Family Law Specialist.