To keep the courts running during COVID-19 closures, judges were required to quickly learn how to use video conferencing technology; first to handle essential cases like criminal matters and emergency hearings, and then later for non-essential cases like divorces. About half of the states do not require a court hearing to finalize an uncontested divorce, but in the states that do, COVID-19 has changed the hearing process, probably permanently. These days, testimony that would have been given in a courtroom is given remotely by phone or video hearing, or sometimes by filing a notarized affidavit.
In a lot of counties, all uncontested divorce hearings are online. The clerk or court should provide a link to the judge’s courtroom prior to the hearing date. It may also be possible to find those links on the county court website. However, not all counties are using online hearings as a standard practice. Many judges have resumed in-person hearings and will likely require one party to file a motion requesting an online hearing if one is desired. That motion may need to provide a reason why an in-person hearing is not possible. Contact the Court Clerk’s office to find out whether your judge holds hearings online or in-person.
A Divorce Decree, also sometimes referred to as a Judgment of Dissolution, may be filed by mail, in person or e-filed (assuming e-filing is an option in your county). In many counties, the Court Clerk will accept the Decree as an e-mail attachment, which is the easiest way to submit it in anticipation of an online final hearing. Contact the Court Clerk's office to see if they will accept the Decree/Judgment by e-mail. Make sure the case number is in the subject line of the e-mail. Include the date of the divorce hearing in the body of the e-mail.
Most of the tips for finalizing an uncontested divorce by video hearing are the same as for a hearing in front of a judge. Video hearings require either a smartphone or a computer with a camera, and a stable internet connection. Sound issues are the most common problem encountered with video hearings and they are generally the result of weak Wi-Fi. Depending on the stability of your internet connection, it may be necessary to ensure that sure no one else at your home is using your Wi-Fi during your hearing. Most courts are conducting hearings using Zoom. If you are not already familiar with using Zoom, it is a good idea to download the app for free and try it out with someone else before the actual hearing.
In some counties, judges prefer that testimony be given by a written affidavit rather than remotely by video or phone. In these counties, the spouse that filed for divorce signs an Affidavit of Testimony in front of a Notary Public and then files it with the Court Clerk. The content of the affidavit mirrors the testimony that would have been given at an actual hearing, namely that the state’s requirements for a divorce have been met. Texas is an example of a state where many judges accept a notarized affidavit in lieu of testimony. Prior to COVID-19, a Texas divorce petitioner had to go to Court to give testimony, also known as a prove up hearing, and submit a Divorce Decree for the judge’s signature. However, because of procedural changes prompted by pandemic-related restrictions, Texans may now submit the Decree and an Affidavit for Prove Up Testimony by mail or e-filing to avoid a hearing entirely.
Initially it was unknown if courts would continue to hold uncontested divorce hearings remotely once it was deemed safe to resume in-court hearings. In the nearly three years since the pandemic began, judges have become comfortable with video hearings, and courts have continued to use them even though the initial fears over COVID-19 have subsided significantly. Lower costs and greater efficiency, not to mention to reducing stress on the parties, appear to have been sufficient to make video hearings a popular option. Arranging childcare and transportation is a struggle for many as is taking time off work. Particularly in uncontested divorce cases when the parties have a written agreement resolving all issues, requiring them to appear in person at the courthouse is often unjustifiably cumbersome.
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