Custody in the Time of COVID-19: 5 Recommendations

by Aleksandra J. Kocelko, Esq.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have most people telecommuting, purchasing essential items and practicing social distancing, the impact on families navigating custody cases can be far-reaching. Parents may struggle to determine how to adapt to the current situation. While there is never a “one size fits all” approach to custody, here are five recommendations parents can follow during this challenging and unprecedented time.

Adhere to the Court Order – If you have a custody order in place, you should continue to abide by the terms set forth. If you are concerned about your family’s health with kids going back and forth between households, start by talking to the other parent. Getting on the same page regarding social distancing and isolation can help diffuse issues. If you or your family have specific health issues that might be impacted by the coronavirus, seek input from your doctor on the potential risks involved in custody exchanges. Medical personnel may be better equipped to explain the health effects of transitioning between households during this difficult time. Most schools have closed as a result of the virus, so paying special attention to the terms of your Order is critical. Many court orders will specify how custody is addressed on school holidays, in-service days, etc.; abiding by these terms should put you on the right path. Anticipate some confusion as you may be transitioning from a spring break schedule, back to the school schedule, or vice versa. In the event one parent fails to comply with the Court Order, you may have an action for contempt, and could seek sanctions including legal fees and make-up time.

What If I Don’t Have a Court Order – With many courts closing or limiting functions during this time, parties without a set custody order may struggle more than most. If possible, start by communicating with the other parent, or through attorneys, to see if you can create an interim custody schedule. Some courts are also allowing urgent or emergency matters to be heard even throughout the judicial emergency, so if you have no access to your child, you might have recourse with the courts. Keep a thorough record of all attempts made to resolve matters outside of court, including e-mails, text messages, etc.

Communication – Having separate households likely means different sets of rules and expectations for children. During this pandemic, communicating with the other parent on how you are applying recommendations for distancing, isolation and quarantine can reduce concerns and prevent issues with custody exchanges. If you have specific concerns about how this virus might impact you or your family, start by talking to the other parent in a calm and reasonable fashion. Avoid threats, ultimatums and inflammatory language. Many people are scared and confused; approaching all interactions with patience and respect can go a long way.

Exchanges – With various businesses closed, the new regulations might impact your custody exchanges. If you regularly exchange custody in a public place or at school, you and the other parent may need to temporarily revise the location. Some parents are concerned about taking their kids out in public during this time, so you also may want to make changes to avoid the public. Many court orders allow parents to temporarily make changes to the custody order upon agreement, without needing to go back to court to change the order. If you are concerned, having something in writing, signed by both parents, might suffice in the interim, but you can always contact an attorney to discuss the specifics.

Makeup Time – Depending on the circumstances, one parent may lose out on custody time with the children due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It may be that one parent has been exposed and doesn’t want to put the children in jeopardy, or perhaps, the parties live in different states and don’t believe exchanges should happen under these circumstances. You also might have cases where one parent simply is refusing to exchange custody, out of concern, fear, or other issues. While this is an unprecedented situation, courts will likely consider all of the facts and may be generous in awarding make-up time for missed visits.

If you have any questions or concerns on how COVID-19 might impact your custody case, contact the experienced attorneys at Burns White.