Children need the guidance, counsel, nurturing, and love of both parents to have the best opportunity to become secure, well-adjusted, and productive members of the community. But when parents divorce, the courts and the law strive to maintain that dynamic by promoting and encouraging co-parenting or shared parental time. But the Covid-19 crisis can and has put a strain on co-parenting for many families. To better cope with the pandemic and the impact on children, here are some suggestions and things you need to know.
Court Orders Need to be Followed
Parenting plans, Separation Agreements, and child custody orders still need to be followed even if the pandemic has caused layoffs, sickness, or because lockdown orders are in place. If a parent has been infected or is self-quarantining out of caution, the parties need to cooperate in maintaining the parenting plans as closely as possible. For instance, a sick parent or one in isolation should not allow the child to visit but the parent with whom the child is living can and should permit video, Skype, or Zoom meetings and frequent phone calls. If the child is engaged in on-line schooling, that should be maintained as well regardless of whom the child is with.
If you want major changes in the parenting plan because of the pandemic, then the parents should consider putting them in writing and signing the agreement. Likewise, if there are child support payments that the payor parent is having difficulty paying because of a layoff or loss of employment, that parent needs to advise the recipient parent and see if payments can be delayed or decreased. Certainly, if payments are being automatically deducted from a paycheck that is no longer forthcoming, the parent is still obligated to make the payments or risk contempt of court and certain penalties.
What if a Parent Opposes Changes?
When circumstances change from the time the original custody order was issued that are substantial and material, then you should consider seeking a modification order. The proposed modifications also have to be in the best interests of the children. Parents may be seeking a modification if:
- The other parent is traveling overseas or to a location that has a high incidence of Covid-19 infections but still demands the child physically visit on his/her return
- You want to prevent the parent from traveling to a hazardous location
- A parent has become infected
- The other parent does not follow recommended guidelines on social distancing, wearing a mask, or handwashing
- A parent wants to travel with the child to another country or hot spot
If there is a lack of cooperation or a dispute over changes to the existing custody order, then you need to contact your divorce lawyer for advice on whether an emergency modification order should be filed.
What if Child Support Payments are Not Being Paid?
If you are experiencing a financial hardship and have child support obligations, you need to file a Complaint for Modification and a Motion for temporary order to delay or decrease your child support. Similarly, a recipient parent can file a Complaint for Contempt with the court. Meanwhile, both parties should try to compromise or work out an arrangement since either complaint may not be heard for weeks or longer. Parents who are not receiving payments cannot deny visitation to the other parent and risks severe penalties if they do. If you fail to file a Complaint and do not engage in attempts to compromise or resolve your differences, the court will not look with favor on your complaint or motion. Any attempts to compromise or reason with the other parent should be in writing such as in emails. Do not hesitate to file a Complaint in either case, and for support obligors to accompany a complaint with a motion to decrease payments even if it may not be heard for weeks.
Non-custodial parents who are not meeting their obligations should contact the Child Support Enforcement Division of the Department of Revenue to discuss their situation.
Recommendations on Co-Parenting During the Pandemic
During the pandemic, it may be necessary that co-parenting activities be modified to keep yourself and your child safe and secure. Here are some suggestions on co-parenting during this time:
- Keep communicating with the other parent. Talk about the risks and your health concerns if a parent wants to travel with your child. You can compromise by allowing travel at a later and safer time, or by trading time in the future. Talk about what is to happen if one of you is infected or is exposed to the virus. If a parent has to self-quarantine, video meetings and phone calls should substitute for physical visitation. Talk about ways to limit your child to exposure from non-family members.
- Be sure that everyone is complying with public health recommendations by:
- wearing a mask in public
- washing hands frequently
- keeping at least 6-feet from non-household members,
- avoiding public gatherings
- cleaning surfaces
- Try to maintain the regular parenting schedule as closely as possible or agree to alternatives with the other parent.
- If you have to do video parenting, consider creative ways to engage with your child such as reading a book, playing an online game, or drawing.
- You can still do outdoor activities together:
- exercise together
- prepare meals together
- play board games
- drawing, painting, sculpting, or making jewelry
- Look online for activities you and your child can do
- Be willing to compromise and be generous with the other parent. Be open to accommodations to make-up for lost physical parenting time.
Consult Divorce Lawyer Heather M. Ward
It is important to adhere to current court orders on custody, parenting, and support obligations and to communicate with the other parent if there are concerns about exposure or meeting support payments. If you have questions or concerns or need advice on modifying current orders, call Boston divorce lawyer Heather M. Ward at (617) 903-8955 for a free consultation.