Coronavirus has upended family law in Israel

There are more laws regulating family relationships than almost any other sphere of law.

The law courts in Tel Aviv (photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)
The law courts in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)
Most people don’t realize that whatever they do and within whatever framework they live, they are governed by a web of laws that both protect them and regulate them. This is particularly true of the family unit. There are more laws regulating family relationships than almost any other sphere of law. Compare, for example, the Law of Inheritance, which has just one single piece of major legislation. The family is legislated in a mosaic of interlocking laws that deal with the myriad and almost endless questions and issues that arise within the family unit. This is much more dramatically necessary in the case of a family that has undergone a divorce or separation.
But in particular for these families, the unexpected onslaught of coronavirus has, at least for the short term, upended established norms and needs re-thinking, at least for now, on various issues.
Initially, when the strict lockdown was imposed, one of the questions that arose among separated families was how could children living with the designated custodial parent get to see the other non-custodial parent. Obviously it is critical for the well-being of children that they are in touch with both father and mother, even if these adults have decided to part.
So the government, under some pressure of the National Family Law Committee of the Israel Bar (of which one of the writers is a member), immediately promulgated emergency regulations allowing minors in this situation to move outside their shelter-in-place location in order to meet with their other parent. This was initially pushed by the Minister of Justice, Ohana, whose swift action to remedy this problem is to be commended.
But another, much more intractable, problem has been created by the corona and there the judicial response has been hesitant and unclear, leaving separated parents in a quandary. The financial blow that has impacted ordinary working men and women, and also independent businessmen and women – and in fact anyone not working in the public sector who has a certain level of economic protection – obviously impacts the payment of child support.
The court has to be very strict when it comes to enforcing child support, but what can a court do if a person whose life depends on tourism – say a tour guide – turns to the court and says that “my business has collapsed.” It would be understandable, would it not, if such a person reduce his support payments. Such a person would logically argue that the custodial spouse must to take this change in situation into consideration. On the other hand, it is surely unacceptable that a parent unilaterally decides to reduce his/her commitment to child support.
One million unemployed people have been added to the economy in Israel, so the question is not moot.
A court order that has either been reached through an agreement between the parties or though a judgment set out by the court, has to be fulfilled precisely and without variation, until or unless such variation has received ratification by the court.
Until now, the courts did not ratify changes or reductions in the level of child support. The basic, slightly hesitant policy of the court is there is no need to rush and make changes of these sorts precipitously. However, it is clear that the changes in the economic circumstances are not going to be short term. The corona has hit various sectors so hard that some will not recover.
So, generally speaking, the courts will not change agreements that have been set, either by the courts or by the parties in the past, and it will take some persuading to get a judge to agree that there is a special reason which will justify them making these changes. However, some husbands have argued that there cannot be a more dramatic change than a worldwide plague on a biblical level as we are seeing today.
There are discussions about the criteria that should be applied by the court. It has been argued that, for example, someone who has been recognized by the government as being eligible to obtain a grant, due to the corona situation, has clear a prima facie proof that he has been damaged economically and thus justifying the change in the figures presented by the parties in their agreement or that the court has laid down in what seems like today to be a different era.
On the other hand, the custodial parent could very well be in a similar position and is totally dependent on the funds emanating from the non-custodial parent. Whichever way one looks at it, some justice will have to be done as the sufferers will be the children.
The questions are greater than the answers, and the chaos and uncertainty that we all have regarding the future will be translated into court decisions that reflect that. But the main rule for the moment is no unilateral changes are acceptable, and those who have to pay child support should do so precisely according to the court decisions or agreements. People who owe child support should remember that child support is immediately actionable by the receiving parent by going directly to the Hotza’a L’Poel (Bailiff’s Office). And the sanctions for failing to pay are draconian, including imprisonment.
Dr. Haim Katz is senior partner in a law firm based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Aluma Katz-Bar is also a well known advocate, and both have written books on inheritance law and family law, as well as being active in general civil litigation.

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