Kindel Jenkins can remember a conversation near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with attorneys at the League City law office where she works. What would they do if there wasn’t enough work to go around? How would they afford to keep everyone employed?
Jenkins’ fears never came to pass. Rather, the family law attorney has more than twice the usual number of new clients and more business than ever. Pandemic-induced anxiety, financial fears and living in constant close quarters with spouses, it seems, made it impossible to sweep aside or ignore festering marital problems.
Many attorneys and legal experts across Galveston County who deal with family law are seeing the same thing, they said. After a brief decline in work at the beginning of coronavirus-related shutdowns, more and more married couples are seeking legal opinions and filing for divorce, they said.
“I think the pandemic is part of it,” said Leslie Burgoyne, managing attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid’s Galveston office. “COVID is giving parents excuses to be ugly to each other. Tensions are high.”
Lone Star Legal Aid is a statewide service providing counsel to low-income Texans. The organization handles everything from eviction problems to family law filings.
Galveston County attorneys weren’t sure exactly how many more divorces had been filed in recent months, but those interviewed agreed their caseloads had increased significantly.
Jenkins, for instance, averaged about 12 new clients a month before the pandemic began, she said. Some months, the number would be higher, others slightly lower.
Now, however, Jenkins has seen anywhere from 20 to 30 new clients each month, starting about two or three months ago, she said.
“At the end of March and early April, when there was a lot of uncertainty, the numbers were a little bit slower,” she said. “I think people were so concerned about what might happen. But since May or June, it’s been very, very busy.”
Nationally, it’s even harder to determine exactly how many more divorce cases have been filed since the pandemic began. But more than a dozen cities in China have reported an increased rate of divorce filings since March, toward the end of that country’s lockdown — leading some experts to argue the same will hit the United States soon, according to an article in the Financial Times.
In some ways, the rise makes inherent sense — families that had been spending time apart at work suddenly find themselves stressed out over finances and pandemic uncertainty, while cooped up for months inside their homes, attorneys said.
But these newer divorce filings have featured a slightly different type of client, according to Rob Musemeche, a family and probate law attorney with offices in Webster and League City.
Musemeche, like Jenkins, has seen a dramatic uptick in divorce filings beginning a few months after the pandemic began, he said.
More and more of the clients Musemeche sees these days are far more desperate to see their cases through than they had been before the pandemic, he said. There aren’t too many people just looking to peaceably divorce now.
“The work itself has been more emotional, there’s far more desperation,” he said.
“People are fatigued, frankly, from 2020. It’s been a stressful year in general, and it’s coming out in how they handle family law cases,” he said.
Acrimonious would be a good word to describe newer filings, Jenkins said.
Filing for divorce, depending on the case, can actually be relatively simple, Burgoyne said.
Because of how busy her office has been with other cases, Burgoyne actually helped some people navigate the system themselves.
The pandemic likely hasn’t turned happy marriages into unhappy ones, but rather only exacerbated issues for people who had been unhappy for a while, Jenkins hypothesized.
“One of the biggest reasons leading to divorce is finances and the fights that ensue,” she said. “This has definitely come with people losing jobs and then with the different stay-at-home orders, people are required and urged to stay home when they’re already feeling unhappy. It’s all a perfect storm.”
Divorce cases fell off a cliff in the immediate aftermath of the shutdowns in March, in part because courts largely stopped dealing with many cases, Musemeche said.
Couples facing uncertain finances and financial futures might have tried to stick out difficult situations by sleeping in different rooms and finding temporary solutions, Musemeche said.
But as the months have gone by, more and more people seem to be realizing they aren’t workable situations.
“It all comes back to those underlying issues,” he said. “Before COVID, people could tape over those with living their daily lives. But things have definitely come to a head.”