Frequently Asked Questions Involving Courts and COVID-19
Virtual Hearings During COVID-19
Basic info and definitions
How can I start my case?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many state courts will allow you to start your case electronically - either through email or the court’s specific electronic filing system. Many states also still have in-person filing hours or drop-off services that allow for contactless in-person delivery of court filings. Additionally, you may be able to mail in your paperwork. The in-person and electronic filing may be faster and more reliable than the option to send filings through the mail.
What type of hearing will I have?
In many states, you will have a virtual hearing. Some states are having in-person hearings even if you are able to file your paperwork electronically, so always follow the instructions provided to you by the court.
What is a virtual hearing?
Virtual hearings are court hearings that take place through phone or video conferences, instead of in-person hearings in the courthouse. COVID-19 has made in-person hearings unsafe or challenging in some states, so courts are moving hearings online to continue to process cases. You can participate through video conferencing software (like Zoom) or connect by phone (if allowed by your court).
How do I know if I have a virtual hearing?
The most important thing to keep in mind is to be in contact with the court. Regardless of how you file your case or documents, someone from the court should follow up with you as to how your case will proceed. This may be through mail or phone, so be sure to give the court a current phone number and mailing address.
The virtual hearing process
How do I serve the respondent before my hearing?
Generally, the court will allow you to serve the abuser in the same way that the court allows for filing documents. For example, if the court allows you to file your case through email, the respondent can also possibly be served through email rather than the regular mail. You should confirm with a lawyer or the court clerk what form of service is acceptable.
What will the courtroom be like for my virtual hearing?
The process for your virtual hearing will likely be very similar to an in-person hearing, but you may be kept in a virtual waiting room until your case is called. If you are calling in rather than using video conference software, not being able to see the other party and the judge may be difficult. The order of events and the procedure for conducting the hearing typically remain the same.
How do I prepare for a virtual hearing?
There are a few things you can do to prepare for your hearing.
- Think about any documents or evidence you might want the judge to see. Your evidence can include anything that helps tell your story (medical records, photographs, text messages, phone records, etc.). The judge will decide what evidence s/he is allowed to consider under your state’s rules of evidence. You may need to submit all evidence and documents to the court before the hearing by scanning the documents or taking photos of them. The court should specify how and when you should submit documents.
- Have copies of the documents with you so you can refer to them easily during the hearing.
- If possible, set up for your hearing in a location where you will not be disturbed. Make sure that the audio and video equipment you are using is working properly.
- Your court may use Zoom or other platforms (Skype, Webex) that require you to download software or an app to join the meeting. These downloads are free but make sure to download the software ahead of time. It may take time to download and you don’t want to be late to your hearing if you wait to download it right before your hearing starts. The court should provide you a link or phone number to join the hearing.
What technology do I need for a virtual hearing?
To join the hearing through video conferencing, you will need a device that has the ability to connect to the Internet. Keep in mind that you may need to have a computer, tablet, or phone that has a working camera. If you are using a cell phone that has a limited number of minutes, check that you have enough minutes available. Be aware of battery life. Keep electronics connected to a charger, if possible. Courts know that many people may need assistance to participate in a virtual hearing, but you should let them know if you need assistance. Communicate any accommodations or needs you have to the court due to any disabilities that you may have.
Restraining Order Cases During COVID-19
I’m not sure if my court date is still scheduled. What do I do?
You should first try to call or check online to find out if your courthouse is open and if your court hearing is still on the calendar. If your court appearance or hearing has not been postponed, and you do not appear, there may be consequences. For example, if your case is a criminal case and you do not appear, the judge might revoke your bail, issue a warrant for your arrest, or take other steps. In a civil case, a judge might dismiss a petition or issue a default judgment for the other party (depending on if you are the petitioner or respondent). If you are unsure or unable to determine if your court date is still scheduled, you may want to consider making plans to attend until you hear otherwise.
What happens if my court date was canceled or postponed (adjourned)?
If you find out that your court case has been postponed, the letter or the notice where you learned this information should also explain what will happen to your case going forward. If you received a letter, it might set a new date for your case. If the court is closed, then there may be a time in the future when the court will begin to reschedule court appearances. If you still have questions, you may be able to call the court clerk for more information. If you already have a restraining order, you can ask the court clerk if the expiration date has been extended. If it has been extended, ask for the new expiration date and request a confirmation letter in the mail. If your court date was canceled, you can ask if there is a new date. If there is a new date, ask for a confirmation letter in the mail.
What should I do about my case if I test positive for COVID-19 or I am experiencing symptoms?
If you think you are sick, review the symptoms of COVID-19 and call your doctor or local health department. Ask your doctor to email you a letter immediately that mentions your symptoms and ask the doctor to specifically recommend that you do not attend court. You should also contact the court clerk where your case is pending to let them know about your situation and to ask for an adjournment. Ask the clerk for an email address where you can send the doctor’s note as proof that you are sick. The court should postpone your case so that you can take the time you need to recover and lower the risk that you might spread the virus to others. If you are not well enough to contact the court on your own, you may be able to have someone else reach out to them for you. Once you email your doctor’s letter, you should follow up with the clerk to make sure that the letter was received and that it was sent to the judge and to the opposing party or their lawyer.
I don’t have a restraining order, but I need one. Can I still get one?
Courts are continuing to issue restraining orders during the pandemic even if courts are not accepting other sorts of petitions. Check with your courthouse to see if the filing location or hours have changed with the COVID-19 precautions in place, or if online filing is permitted. Your local courthouse may have forms available to request a restraining order. You might also be able to find forms on your state court’s website or on WomensLaw.org’s Download Court Forms page.
You can also check WomensLaw.org’s Restraining Orders page for help determining whether you would qualify for an order. If you are in immediate danger, you may want to consider contacting the police if that is a safe option for you.
I already have a temporary restraining order. My courthouse has canceled in-person hearings. Can I still get a final order?
In light of the current pandemic, many courts are extending temporary restraining orders so that they do not expire before you are able to have a hearing to get a final order. Some courts are sending letters to individuals about their specific case, and some are issuing statewide notices about the status of the courts and court orders. You may or you may not receive notice from the court about an extension. You should not assume that your order is extended unless you have received a letter that says this, or unless your state has issued a statewide notice about restraining orders. You may want to call the court for further guidance on extending or keeping in place your current restraining order. The paperwork you received after the court granted the initial order may have contact information, or you can look on WomensLaw.org’s Courthouse Locations page.
My restraining order has been violated. What can I do?
If your order has been violated, or if you are in immediate danger, you may want to consider contacting the police if that is a safe option for you. Violations of protection/restraining orders are usually arrestable offenses. If you are not already working with a local victim advocate, you may want to consider finding one. We have a list of Advocates and Shelters in your state on WomensLaw.org. They can help assess your risk and safety plan around your unique situation. For general safety tips, please visit the WomensLaw Safety Tips page. If you are concerned for your tech-related safety, especially if you are using technology now more than before, please check out additional resources in TechSafety.org’s Survivor Toolkit.
I haven’t yet received my stimulus check. Can I check the status of my stimulus payment?
I never received my stimulus check. How might the abuser have taken my stimulus payment?
If you suspect the abuser may have taken your stimulus payment, it is important to understand the ways in which an abuser might get your stimulus money. Depending on how the abuser got your stimulus money, you may have different options in terms of how to recover it. Below are some examples of scenarios in which the abuser may have gotten your stimulus money.
- For the first and second rounds of stimulus payments. You filed a joint tax return for 2018 or 2019 and had your refund automatically deposited into a joint bank account or into the abuser’s account. The government used information from your most recently filed tax return to send out stimulus money, and so the stimulus amount went into this account and the abuser moved it or denied you access to the account. Alternatively, the stimulus may have been delivered in the mail by check or debit card to the address on the tax return and you were denied access to the check or forced to sign it over to the abuser.
- For the third round of stimulus payments. You filed a joint tax return for 2019 or 2020 and had your refund automatically deposited into a joint bank account or into the abuser’s account. The government used information from your most recently filed tax return to send out stimulus money, and so the stimulus amount went into this account and the abuser moved it or denied you access to the account. Alternatively, the stimulus may have been delivered in the mail by check or debit card to the address on the tax return and you were denied access to the check or forced to sign it over to the abuser.
- The abuser fraudulently filed a joint tax return using your information for 2018, 2019 and/or 2020 either without your consent or by forcing your participation, and the stimulus payment(s) were issued based on the fraudulent tax return. The stimulus was then delivered to the address on the tax return by check or debit card, or deposited into the bank account listed on the tax return and you were denied access to your portion of the stimulus. There is a Handout written by the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Community Tax Law Project that addresses this topic as well as a blog post from the National Taxpayer Advocate with more information on this scenario.
- The abuser took a check that was rightfully mailed to you at your new separate address or at your old address that you shared with the abuser, or the abuser accessed your separate bank account to withdraw or transfer the money out without your permission.
What can I do if I am no longer married, or legally separated, and the abuser takes my stimulus payment?
If you are not married to an abuser, already divorced from him/her, a divorce is pending, or you have both signed a separation agreement, then there are a few things you can do to try to get your stimulus payment back.
- The first option, if it is safe to do so, is to ask the person if s/he received your stimulus payment and when s/he plans to turn it over to you. It is possible that money could have been deposited into an account and the other party did not realize it. If asking for the money does nothing, the next step is to ask about it in writing to begin to create a paper trail. You could do this yourself if it’s safe to do so or have a lawyer help you, if possible. The CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act state that “with respect to a joint return, half of such refund or credit shall be treated as having been made or allowed to each individual filing such return.”1 This means that even if the stimulus was issued to you and the abuser via one check or one direct deposit, one-half of the stimulus payment belongs to you. This language from the law might be useful when writing a demand letter.
- If there is a divorce pending, then you can ask the judge in the divorce case to order the payment returned to you. You may be able to do this at a hearing, or it is possible that you would have to submit a formal motion. It may be advisable to cite the language from the law supporting that your portion of the stimulus is your property.
- Taking money that belongs to another person when the parties are not married could be considered theft. When someone experiences a crime, s/he may be able to contact the police for assistance. The police may take action, or they might say it is a “civil matter” and refuse to get involved. If you are currently married to the abuser, going to the police may not be an option because most assets in a marriage are joint assets and cannot be stolen from one another. You can see more information about joint assets at the end of this question.
- Depending on the rules in your state, you may be able to bring a civil lawsuit against the abuser. If a divorce is pending, the issue may have to be addressed through the divorce proceedings, but if there is no divorce pending, a person who had money taken from him/her may be able to file a claim in small claims court. Small claims court is a less formal type of court, and many people are able to go to small claims court without the help of a lawyer. You can ask the court clerk at your local civil court for more information on small claims court in your area. You can also read some general information on small claims court, including how much money you can ask for in small claims court in your state, on our Suing an Abuser for Money page.
- In some circumstances, it might be possible for you to file a superseding separate tax return for 2020 to change your 2020 filing status, bank account information, and address by the deadline for filing your 2020 tax return (which is now May 17, 2021). The hope is that when the separate superseding 2020 tax return is processed, even if a joint 2020 tax return was already filed, it would update your information with the IRS and qualify you for your own separate stimulus payment(s) issued after the 2020 tax return is processed. You can also claim your separate Recovery Rebate Credit on the superseding tax return for which you think you are eligible. Changing your filing status might result in more taxes being owed, and so you will want to talk to a tax professional to see if this is a viable option for you. Here is a Blog Post with more information about this method. WomensLaw is not associated with this website and we cannot vouch for the information it contains.
- You might also be able to claim your first two stimulus payments for yourself as a credit (known as the Recovery Rebate Credit or “RRC”) when you file your 2020 tax return in 2021. Make sure to indicate to the IRS on your tax return that you did not receive your stimulus payment(s). The IRS will likely challenge this if their records show payments were already issued under your SSN, so you will need to argue, and prove if possible, that you did not receive the stimulus payments. The IRS will likely provide you with a limited timeframe of 60 days to respond to their denial of the credit. You should respond to the IRS within that timeframe and you may want to work with a tax professional for help with how to respond to the IRS by certified mail. The letter could explain the situation in detail and demand your stimulus payment if, for example, the IRS wrongfully put into an account to which you have no access. There is a Handout written by the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Community Tax Law Project that explains this process in more detail.
1 CARES Act, within SEC. 6248, 2020 Recovery Rebates for Individuals pp 144-145
What can I do if I am married and my spouse takes my stimulus check?
Generally, most of the funds that come into a marriage are considered joint money. This means that both spouses are equally allowed to access as much of the joint funds as they want. One person’s money is also the other person’s money, and vice versa. When one spouse takes joint funds, it is not usually considered stealing because you cannot steal from yourself. In some places, spouses cannot sue one another, other than for divorce, for this same reason. However, some states may allow spouses to sue one another. You will have to check with the court clerk or a lawyer in your area to see if filing a small claims action is an option for you.
If small claims court is not possible, then one other option is to file for divorce and ask the divorce judge to order that the stimulus payment be returned to you. Divorce can be complicated and so you will want to consult with a lawyer before deciding on whether or not to file for divorce. We have more information in our Divorce section.
You might also be able to claim your stimulus payment for yourself as a married individual when you file your 2020 tax return in 2021, if you file as married filing separately. Make sure to indicate to the IRS that you did not receive your stimulus payment(s). The IRS will likely challenge this if their records show payments were already issued under your SSN, so you will need to argue, and prove if possible, that you did not receive the stimulus payments. The IRS will likely provide you with a limited timeframe of 60 days to respond to their denial of the credit. You should respond to the IRS within that timeframe, and you may want to work with a tax professional for help with how to respond to the IRS by certified mail. The letter could explain the situation in detail and demand your stimulus payment if, for example, the IRS wrongfully put into an account to which you have no access. There is a Handout written by the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Community Tax Law Project that explains this process in more detail.