Child custody and visitation questions bring anxiety during the most ordinary times. Add coronavirus to the mix and everything is edgier. You want to protect your kids from COVID-19 and you also want to be with them; their other parent probably feels the same way. And you’re still facing weeks or months of upended plans that bring up difficult practical and legal questions.
- What happens to custody and visitation agreements when everyone’s supposed to stay home?
- Who should be allowed around the kids? How much should they be out of the house and for what reasons?
- How do we handle new financial problems?
As parents grapple with child custody and coronavirus concerns, most legal experts recommend sticking to a few fundamental principles.
1. Negotiate, Mediate, Cooperate
A crisis has the potential to bring out the very best or the very worst in us. Because folks are under so much stress and most courts are closed for all but the most urgent matters, it’s in everybody’s best interest—especially the kids’—to be as flexible and cooperative as possible.
If you’re genuinely concerned about any part of your current parenting agreement, think about proposing temporary, commonsense changes. The alternatives you suggest should take everyone’s needs into consideration but must always put your kids’ safety and well-being first.
Some parents are revising their custody plans together, one week or one month at a time. Sometimes this means changing where the kids stay; sometimes it’s the parents who are temporarily moving houses or changing when or where they work. Other parents are employing creative ways to visit when in-person visits are impossible or unwise. By now you’re probably an expert at using Zoom or FaceTime and keeping in touch by calling and texting.
Of course, if you have a contentious relationship with your child’s other parent, this guideline may frustrate you. Remember you can ask for help. Lawyers and mediators are still working. With courts mostly closed, they may have even more time available for phone consultations or video-conferenced mediation sessions. For those who can’t afford a lawyer, court self-help centers or legal aid offices may be able to help.
Whatever you do, keep in mind—and remind your ex if necessary—that without a court order, even a pandemic may not give you the legal right to unilaterally change your existing custody and visitation agreement. Later, courts are likely to look carefully at how parents are acting now.
2. Think About How a Judge Will View Your Actions Later
Some family law attorneys are sharing stories of parents using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to deny their exes access to the kids when doing so may not be warranted. They stress that aggressively or unilaterally changing custody or visitation agreements can land parents in legal hot water.
Before you cancel visits or withhold your kids from their other parent, it’s wise to do two things. First, think about whether you have a legitimate reason to be concerned for your child’s safety. Second, learn all you can about how family courts in your area are treating existing custody and visitation agreements.
If you find out that your family court is taking the strict view that custody agreements stand as written, you risk being penalized or even held in contempt of court for failing to comply. And unless your situation qualifies as an emergency in the eyes of the court, it will be up to you and your ex to resolve your differences. As mentioned above, you don’t have to do this alone. Consider reaching out to a local family law attorney, mediator, or arbitrator to help you reach a reasonable agreement that will work now and keep you out of court later.
3. Find Out How Local Judges View Child Custody Agreements During the Coronavirus Crisis
Across the country, judges are taking vastly different approaches to the interpretation and enforcement of existing child custody agreements during the coronavirus pandemic.
At one extreme, the Texas Supreme Court said that parents should follow existing custody orders without regard to shelter orders put in place by counties or cities. At the other, some judges have said exactly the opposite, temporarily freezing custody with the parent who had the child when the stay-at-home order took effect. Many other jurisdictions seem to be abiding somewhere in the vague middle, with outcomes depending on whether an individual judge thinks it’s likely that a parent is putting the kids in real danger.
Do what you can to figure out which way your local family court is leaning. You may want to begin by checking the court’s website. Some have published information to help lawyers and parents navigate questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If your local court hasn’t issued guidelines, consider connecting with a family lawyer in your area. Until you get information to the contrary, assume that any court ordered or approved agreement remains in effect.
You can find contact information for your family court—and information on finding local family lawyers—in Legal Consumer’s Child Custody learning center. (Just enter your zip code; you need not provide personal data to find your court.)