The entire world is experiencing an unprecedented event as we all work through one of the most stressful events in recent history. As people around the world practice social distancing and self quarantine, it’s likely the only people they will be around are their immediate family. However, for divorced and separated parents, the definition of “immediate family” isn’t always so obvious.
During this crisis, family lawyers are being inundated with calls from concerned parents who are worried about returning children to parents that don’t practice social distancing or are essential employees working in hospitals and retail stores. Some of these parents contemplate the repercussions of courts if they choose to willfully violate court orders already in place.
While some parenting plans and custody agreements anticipate things such as hurricanes or snowstorms, it is safe to assume that there is not a single order that has ever considered a phenomenon such as the one we are currently experiencing. This is entirely uncharted legal territory, and to make matters worse, parents in many jurisdictions will be left without access to courts and judges, who would otherwise be able to give case by case guidance in such a situation. This means that now, more than ever, it becomes paramount for parents to set aside emotions and game playing to work together to do what’s best for each child. This is a time for parents to work as a team, be open to new arrangements, and understand that while hard choices may need to be made, this situation will not last forever. Things will return to normal.
Every relationship is different and has different dynamics. It may simply be impossible to come to an agreement. In the weeks ahead when things return to normal, family lawyers expect that parents who abuse the current events to get a short term “win” over the other parents will be dealt with fairly severely, while parents who cooperate and act reasonably will be praised.
In a majority of jurisdictions, existing parenting plans and custody orders remain in place, and travel done to effectuate time sharing has largely been allowed throughout the United States and deemed essential. All attorneys are ethically bound to advise you to continue following these orders, and the best advice generally for everyone, including children, is try and keep everything as normal as possible.
Still there are parents who fear for their children’s health. Parents who may be willing to risk defying a court order, hoping that if the other parent won’t agree with them, that the family court will decide that their decision was reasonable. As family law attorneys the world over know, the definition of the term “reasonable” is open to significant interpretation. Be mindful that people are often blinded by their own perceptions in what the right decision may actually be, and therefore it is important to consider your situation from the eyes of an outside observer. Imagine having to explain your decision to a judge. Get the opinion from unbiased third parties, if necessary.
Family law attorneys can be of substantial assistance with this as well, as they may be able to make suggestions that parties have not otherwise considered. It almost goes without saying that a parent who agrees to stay away from their child for as much as two months because they have a high risk of exposure will be entitled to day for day make up timesharing for any days missed. It also goes without saying that a high risk of exposure parent who makes the difficult choice to stay away will not be considered to have “abandoned” the child in any way. Frequent video conferencing using apps such as Facetime, Zoom, and Houseparty should be used. Remember, although you may not get along with the other parent, your child loves and misses them.
Our office has found that one of the benefits of the current state of affairs is that people have the time to talk through disputes. We have successfully used video mediations to settle a substantial amount of divorces and parenting agreements, and because court time has become so limited, scheduling these meetings has become much easier.
Your best options to protect your child now are common sense, civility, and putting your child’s needs first. If you have such a high-conflict relationship that compromise and civility are just not possible, please feel free to call our office. We can assist with numerous options that will help to get your family through this and to find a path forward for you and your children.