Do No Harm: Should I Move Fast or Slow?

Whether you have left an unhappy situation, or are heartbroken about being left by someone you love or need—anxiety around the prospect staying connected to your separated spouse is visceral.

For children, the frustration and despair is multiplied.  Children have no control over the decisions of their parents, the spread of the coronavirus, nor the conditions in which they find themselves. As Justice Marvin Kurz of the Ontario Superior Court wrote:[1]

As great as the danger of COVID-19 undoubtedly is, another great danger here, as it is for many families before this court, is the virus of conflict. Putting children in the middle of conflict, demonstrating that fighting and arguing is how adults manage their disputes, making children take sides in a lose-lose game, all corrode a child’s emotional equilibrium. Children have no special mask or protective gear that can shield them from this type of virus. “

Should you act on any impulses you might have to get away? Or move quickly to negotiate a separation agreement?

Here are some tips to help you control what you can in the best way possible for yourself and your children.

Moving Fast

If you are in an abusive relationship, the toxicity of being connected to other person may harm  you and your children. If your partner is dissipating or hiding assets, moving fast to see a lawyer and take preventative steps is smart. If you are in a coercive controlling relationship, your life or that of your children could be at risk. Learn the behaviours that predict domestic homicide—an often preventable crimes. Advice and support from a domestic violence agency and knowledgeable lawyer should be an urgent priority. If your children are being exposed to risk of harm by the other parent; if the other parent is a flight risk, or is unreasonably denying you access to your children or to money you need— these are urgent situations that may require immediate action.

Moving Slow

In most other cases, slowing down is likely safer for you and your family. In many jurisdictions, getting before a judge is not possible unless your case is urgent. Courts everywhere are saying the same thing:  do not disrupt the lives of your children unless there is an emergency. Dramatic change, in most cases, is not a good idea.

Take this time instead to learn.

Find the local resources to support parents, small businesses, children and youth. Read up: there is an abundance of websites featuring great parenting tips and free advice. Be present for your family, listen to your children, and give everyone including yourself time to adapt.

Get legal advice. The risks of negotiating a separation agreement in these times are great and not all are known. For example, in most jurisdictions, property is divided as of a separation date. Most asset values have changed over short periods of time. Know the law before taking steps that could prejudice you later. Make the fewest decisions necessary and provide that they are temporary, particularly if incomes are in flux or disclosure is not complete.  Agreements made today are likely to change once life returns to ‘normal’. For example, your children are likely at home and not in child care during the pandemic, but that may soon become an expense. Security for child support through life insurance or other means is more important than ever… along with updated wills and powers of attorney. There is much to consider at this time. Try to put your emotional brain on hold so that you can think rationally and reduce the risk of taking (or not taking) steps now you may regret later.

Originally published in Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic, 2020. Available here.

[1] Thomas v. Wohleber, 2020 ONSC 1965 (S.C.J.).

About Hilary Linton

Hilary Linton is a senior family lawyer, mediator, parenting coordinator and arbitrator. She founded Riverdale Mediation after litigating family and civil matters for 14 years including as a partner in a Toronto boutique law firm. Riverdale’s team of highly skilled family mediators, parenting coordinators and arbitrators resolve high conflict and challenging disputes. Riverdale is also internationally known for its high calibre online training programs in Family Dispute Resolution.