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Proposed COVID-19 changes would affect marriage, child support and death

“Until death do us part” or something very similar is commonly recited during wedding vows.

Both marriage and end-of-life planning were part of a quartet of issues the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division discussed Wednesday. Three bills were approved and sent to the House Floor with no dissenting votes.    


Filing to wed

A proposal not yet introduced as a bill was the lone idea not heading to the full House.

It would let local registrars accept electronic filings, mailed or faxed marriage applications during a peacetime emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic and allow examination of the parties under oath using audio or video. Current statute requires at least one of the parties appear in person when submitting the application. This change would expire when the peacetime emergency ends, but no later than Jan. 15, 2021.

“This allows couples … who want to get married and, particularly in response to some of the stress of the pandemic, who really want to move forward with receiving both the emotional and legal benefits of marriage,” said Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls), who worked with Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover) on the language.


Child support payment rates

For many couples, the next life-changing step after “I Do” is creating a family. However, wedded bliss doesn’t always last and mom and dad go their separate ways.

Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL-Shoreview) sponsors HF798 that, as amended, would extend to June 30, 2020, the deadline a child support payer has to file a motion to contest a cost-of-living increase. A court would also be permitted to use its discretion if someone cannot file by that date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but files by Oct. 31, 2020.

By statute, court-ordered child support is subject to a COLA increase every two years based on the Consumer Price Index. This year’s increase is 4.7%, effective May 1. This year’s change notices have been sent to payees, who typically have until the increase’s effective date to file a motion to contest the increase.

“The time frame to contest this is right in the middle of what’s going on,” said Melissa Rossow, director of the Human Services Legal Division at the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. “This is concerning enough, but adding an adjustment of 4.7% right now as people are continuing to lose their jobs, having reduced hours, needing to stay home with children, maybe being ill or taking care of ill relatives, that deadline to contest having an extension is really important.”

The bill specifies that any cost-of-living adjustment would be effective May 1, 2020, unless the court chooses an alternate date.

Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) would like to see penalties waived for not paying the cost-of-living adjustment during these unique times. “We shouldn’t penalize people because we’ve extended the deadline,” she said.

The companion, SF172, is sponsored by Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), and awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.


Harmless will, estate planning

Parents often want to leave possessions to their heirs.

HF1196, as amended, would temporarily allow nonconforming wills to be probated if execution defects are shown to be harmless by clear and convincing evidence. The change would apply to documents executed between March 13, 2020, and Feb. 15, 2021.

“Documents drafted during this time will always be able to rely on this provision, even if the testator dies years later after all this is over,” said Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), the bill sponsor and division chair.

He said the Minnesota State Bar Association supports the change and wants it to become permanent. “We’re not going to do that right now,” Lesch said.

Representing the association, Bryan Lake said an example of the problem is someone not wanting to visit the attorney’s office for fear of interacting with others who could have COVID-19 and request the documents be mailed and signed at home.

“Although it sounds simple, clients frequently make technical errors when they’re executing documents,” Lake said. For example, they sign on the wrong line or even on the “Sign Here” sticker that points to where they are to correctly sign, which results in everything needing to be redone. “They probably happen more frequently now with more people trying to do the stuff themselves.”

Ultimately, if a will is deemed invalid, the testator’s wishes won’t be followed no matter how clear they may be.

Sen. D. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls), sponsors the companion, SF1432, which awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.


Court deadlines

Also sponsored by Lesch, HF1197, as amended, would suspend the ruling of statutory deadlines that govern district and appellate court proceedings. This would apply to deadlines that had not expired as of March 13, 2020 or begun on or after that date.

Recent judicial orders in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic have stopped new trials from starting and encouraged remote hearings in others, which has led to some delays.

“There are all kinds of different statutory limitation periods on a variety of cases, whether it’s an employment law case, a personal injury case, a contract case, and some of those may be approaching the time to be filed in court,” said Joel Carlson, chief lobbyist for the Minnesota Association for Justice. “When the peacetime emergency is over, you won’t have lost that potentially four, five months of time to bring your case to court.”

The suspension would last until 60 days after the peacetime emergency ends.

Samuel Spaid, housing attorney and research director at HOME Line, said many tenants have lost their job because of the pandemic and cannot pay their rent.

He said his organization, which provides free legal help for renters, is concerned there’ll be “a flood” of non-payment eviction cases once the governor’s executive order suspending evictions is lifted.

Dibble also sponsors the companion, SF1431, which, too, awaits action by the Senate judiciary committee.

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