As statewide stay-at-home directives begin to be lifted, how will you get back to normal child custody and visitation? For divorced parents obligated to follow visitation orders and parenting plans involving children, the social upheaval caused by the virus may have greatly impacted the time spent with your children. Parenting plans and custody orders rarely have provisions to cover an emergency like the coronavirus pandemic.
Perhaps you faced difficult decisions including whether or not to disobey custody orders for the sake of your child’s health. As we begin to return to normal, parents may face additional struggles. Many companies will begin expecting employees to return to work while schools will not be opening for the remainder of the year which may pose additional childcare challenges.
The following are suggestions to help you navigate the return to normal, which may serve to minimize stress on your children.
1. Follow the current plan if possible. If both parents typically exchange a child during the week or on weekends, the best option during may simply be to maintain the routine. This provides consistency for the child, and keeps you in compliance with the court order. Making small tweaks to the plan to change pick-up times and locations to address “return to work” schedules, may prove to be more desirable than crafting major changes to the residential schedule.
2. Don’t reinterpret the plan. Custody orders typically state where a child will reside during school vacations. Just because schools may have suspended in-class teaching, this does not mean summer break begins now or that spring break has been extended for weeks. Continue to use the dates originally set by a school district to determine actual vacation periods.
3. Be flexible. With schools continuing to be closed, but businesses returning to operations, many people will be headed back to the office. The modified routines parents and children have become accustomed to, may require further flexibility. Custodial parents may find it helpful to rely on the other parent to spend more time with a child. More frequent exchanges each week may help relieve the child’s anxiety from being cooped up at home without being able to spend time with friends.
For custodial parents who are healthcare workers, ongoing health concerns may be a factor. Asking the other parent to supervise the children for longer periods if that parent is available, may help eliminate stress and provide a positive environment for the children.
Good communication between parents is essential to coordinate schedules, adjust pickup times and locations. Circumstances may continue to change daily, and parents should strive to roll with the flow.
If you haven’t already, parents should discuss how they will handle a situation if either a child or parent becomes infected. If the custodial parent becomes ill, having the child reside with the other parent probably makes the most sense. Similarly, if the child becomes ill in the home of the non-custodial parent, it may be wise for the child to remain there until the child recovers.
4. Employ alternatives if visitation becomes impractical. Even as stay-at-home orders lift, ongoing health concerns may limit visitation travel. No one is likely to fault a parent for keeping a child off of an airline during this pandemic. Where long-distance travel is required, try to negotiate giving the non-custodial parent an extended visitation period to occur after the crisis ends in exchange for giving up visitation now.
If a child or parent has been exposed to or contracted the virus, the necessity for them to remain quarantined will likely impact visitation. Employ other alternatives. Schedule more frequent phone calls. Setup visits by internet using FaceTime or Skype. Encourage sending letters, e-mails and texts.
5. Work to resolve disputes. With most court systems have modified schedules or limited hearings to emergencies only, parents at odds over visitation issues have a few alternatives. If both parents have attorneys, as may be the case in a pending divorce, let the attorneys try to reach a compromise. Alternatively, hire a mediator to listen to both sides and offer a resolution. Any mediated change to the parenting plan must state that it is temporary, and the agreement should be put into writing and signed by both parents.
6. Keep written records. A wise practice is to keep records of communications with the other parent. This includes e-mails and texts regarding any stated concerns about visitation, proposed alternatives to the current plan and actual changes made to the usual schedule. Keep track of changes that differ from the current parenting court order and the reasons for such changes.
The Risk of Ignoring Visitation Orders
Courts are unlikely to impose sanctions for withholding visitation from a parent who becomes infected by the virus. However, short of that circumstance, choosing to withhold visitation may risk being found in contempt and having significant sanctions imposed by a court in the future. Courts have broad authority to grant makeup time to parents who are denied visits and can reduce visitation and custody time for parents who interfere with an ex’s custodial rights.
At this point, no one knows how courts will treat parents who disobey parenting plans based on concerns about the virus. It’s reasonable to expect that many courts will approach these cases similarly to how they did before the virus. Judges tend to negatively view any interference with a parent’s custodial and visitation rights. If you are considering withholding visits from the other parent, you would be wise to first consult a local family law attorney.
The best solution to deal with custody and visitation issues while ongoing virus concerns exist is for parents to work out agreements either between themselves or with the guidance of a third party. Flexibility will go a long way to reduce stress on your children. In making custody and visitation decisions, courts are required to determine what is in a child’s best interest. Now, more than ever, parents should aspire to meet the same standard as they work through these difficult times.
McMurdie Law and Mediation is dedicated to helping clients develop resolutions that are healthy and beneficial to all parties. Mediation can be held using any modality available by computer, whether it’s a Zoom, FaceTime, or another similar software. We are also currently still meeting with clients as they request and following CDC protocols. Call McMurdie Law and Mediation at 480-777-5500 today to schedule a consultation.