Children with divorced or separated parents generally spend time with each parent based on an agreement or a court ordered schedule. This arrangement can be challenging at best. However, with COVID-19 rapidly spreading, and with many cities and states issuing stay-at-home orders, divorced and separated parents are wondering to do about sharing custody during this pandemic.
What happens if one parent is exposed to an infected person or becomes infected with the coronavirus?
What if a child is exposed or becomes infected?
When is the health threat great enough to justify refusing to comply with a written agreement or court order?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not clear, and access to the courts is currently limited to emergencies in Pennsylvania. These cases are going to be fact-specific and it is vital to seek legal counsel if you find yourself in one of these situations or have any other custody concerns related to this pandemic. An experienced family lawyer will be able to help you determine what to do. Your lawyer may be able to resolve the matter with your ex’s lawyer. If not, filing an emergency petition may be required because failure to comply with a court order poses risk the non-complying parent will be held in contempt of court.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) has provided seven guidelines for parents who are divorced or separated and sharing custody during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are great guidelines to follow in general, but especially during this crisis.
- BE HEALTHY. Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model good behavior for your children with intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing. This also means BE INFORMED. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media.
- BE MINDFUL. Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Don’t leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate.
- BE COMPLIANT with court orders and custody agreements. As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions, there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.
- BE CREATIVE. At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums, and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.
- BE TRANSPARENT. Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. Certainly, both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.
- BE GENEROUS. Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible. Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.
- BE UNDERSTANDING. There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.
Adversity can become an opportunity for parents to come together and focus on what is best for the child. For many children, the strange days of the pandemic will leave vivid memories. It’s important for every child to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep their child safe.
Many challenging issues have arisen as a result of this pandemic. We are in an unprecedented situation and the challenges are great. That is why we want you to know that we are working remotely and are available to you. We will continue to answer your questions, advocate for you, and navigate through this time together. Please don’t hesitate to call us.
The divorce and family law attorneys of Shemtob Draganosky Taylor can guide you through all of your divorce and family law matters including custody issues. Contact our family lawyers for a confidential discussion.