COVID-19's Impact on Divorces in Denver: More and Uglier

The physical devastation wreaked by COVID-19 is only the beginning. In Denver and beyond, the pandemic has had a terrible impact on uninfected people, too, in virtually every area of life — including love and marriage.

Todd Burnham is the founding partner of Burnham Law, a top divorce specialist. "We've seen a doubling of visitors to our website and received many more calls — and our numbers are still increasing significantly," he says.

A similar scenario has played out at the Harris Law Firm, P.C., whose president and namesake, Rich Harris, says, "The phones have really been ringing off the hook for the past month from people ready to file for divorce. And even before that, going back two or three months, we've had tons and tons of calls."

Specific case counts are hard to come by at this point, Harris notes: "Right now, the courts are finally getting their act together and processing things. But we've been fielding calls around the clock, and we think they're going to spike."

The flood of inquiries reveals the toll that COVID-19 has taken on relationships in the Mile High City — and so do new twists that the novel coronavirus has had on matters such as custody disputes, including some that require lines to be drawn that no one had previously imagined.

"If someone says, 'Johnny came back from his dad's, who wasn't social distancing, and he had a cough — and I want to restrict parenting time,' well, we're not going to do that," Burnham stresses. "Fear is the driving force for unwarranted filings that, in the long run, hurt the people filing. So effective lawyering sometimes means saying, 'No, this isn't in your best interest.'"

Disagreements over visitation are also being influenced by the virus. "Divorced people — sometimes in good faith and sometimes not — are fighting over whether and how to take kids to the other parent," Harris confirms. "But the judges in our state, to their credit, came out really early on and made it very clear that people could not withhold visitation because of generalized fears of bad behavior or potential exposure. They made a strong statement, which our firm agrees with, that the potential harm to kids of not seeing the other parent was much worse than potential exposure unless there was clear evidence of a direct threat to health."

None of these developments surprises Burnham. "There are a lot of heightened emotions right now," he says. "In any healthy marriage, you're going to have moments of stress — and a lot of them are moments that make couples stronger. They learn to communicate more effectively. But if there are already cracks in the marriage, what's happening now is highlighting them. We're hearing, 'I had this issue with him or her. This has been going on for years.' Maybe you were staying together because you thought it was in the best interest of the children, but then you reached a tipping point after months of isolation — after being on an island with that person."

He adds: "I don't think anyone is divorcing just because they sheltered at home with their spouse for two months. It probably expedites what may have been inevitable."

Harris echoes these observations. "This is something I've thought about for a long time, and it goes to the heart of what really causes divorce," he explains. "My theory after having done this for over 25 years is that people get divorced not because of the immediate acute stressor. They get divorced because of fundamental problems in the relationship. So for the most part, I don't think the quarantine is the cause of the divorce. I think if you take something like a quarantine or the death of a parent or an illness of a child or an economic disaster to a family, relationships that already have flaws or issues are the ones that don't survive."

A common piece of advice that Burnham and his crew share with prospective clients is "not to make a decision in a crisis. But one of the concerning things we've been hearing is that a lot of people from many socioeconomic backgrounds have been talking about the verbal and physical abuse they've been suffering. That, to me, is very concerning, and that's why courts allow for emergency motions in certain situations — and we've utilized them, for sure."

Out of concern over fears of rising domestic violence, Harris's firm has created an online resource page complete with links to organizations that can help people in need. "I'm trying to spread the word that we all need to be vigilant — to check in and be aware of what's going on with neighbors and families," he emphasizes. "Ironically, there are fewer calls coming in to shelters and hotlines right now, but we think it's not because there's less abuse. There could be more abuse, but people are too afraid to pick up the phone."

(The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 800-799-7233.)

Even in less life-threatening situations, lives are definitely coming apart. "I definitely sense a floodgate opening" when it comes to people considering divorce amid the pandemic, Burnham says. "That's why we're really focused on honing our systems to make sure we remain efficient. These are people's lives and their children's lives that are deeply impacted."

Whether Johnny has a cough or not.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts