Getting a divorce and deciding on child custody arrangements are two of life’s most stressful events. Going through these proceedings when life is normal in North Carolina is hard enough, but they become even more difficult during times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
For most divorcing couples in North Carolina, child custody is the most important (and potentially contentious) issue involved in the separation process. It’s absolutely critical that you work with the courts and your former spouse to serve the best interests of your children and to preserve your parenting rights. That hasn’t always been easy since the pandemic spread to the Raleigh area and beyond.
If you’ve been co-parenting with your former spouse during the pandemic, then you probably already know how important it is to continue following your custody plan whenever possible and to only make alterations to your visitation arrangements when absolutely necessary. But how should you proceed with your parenting plan as businesses begin to reopen and life gradually goes back to normal?
While North Carolina continues to evaluate the COVID-19 situation as it develops, it’s important to think ahead and to consider how the reopening plans will affect your child custody arrangement. Here are some things to consider and expect during the “red,” “yellow,” and “green,” phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most important thing to remember when navigating your child custody arrangements during COVID-19 is to document everything. Leave a paper trail and take notes about your decision-making process throughout all phases of the pandemic. That way, you’ll be better able to defend yourself if you are ever questioned about how you handled a specific custody situation.
It might feel unnecessary to document every decision you make on behalf of your child, but it’s important to remember that those decisions will be a reflection of your parenting ability and your willingness to work with your former spouse. Your parental rights may be in jeopardy during and after a divorce in North Carolina and you have to be able to walk the court through your thought process if asked. So, make note of absolutely everything that seems important!
North Carolina is reopening in three phases, but we are still very much in the “red” zone of tackling the virus. Many businesses still remain closed and we’re living under the “Safer at Home” policy, which suggests limiting outings and contact between people. During this initial reopening period, you will still need to stick with your child custody plan as closely as possible. If you don’t follow the agreement, it may jeopardize your parental rights in the future.
Communication is key. Talking with your lawyer, the court, and your co-parent if you are worried about the safety of continuing to follow your custody plan is the best course of action. You need to show that temporarily changing the plan is in the best interests of your children’s health and well-being.
If you don’t have one already, you should create a backup plan for if you or your former spouse gets sick, your child’s daycare closes down, or something else changes due to COVID-19. While the state mandates that child custody in North Carolina shouldn’t change during the pandemic, it’s always good to have a plan in case something goes wrong.
Once things start to open back up even more, it will be even harder to justify any changes to your custody plan. As life starts to go back to normal, the courts will expect parents who are divorced or are in the process of getting a divorce in North Carolina to follow their custody arrangements as they were before the pandemic.
It’s always a good idea to talk with your attorney if you need advice on any COVID-related adjustments to your custody plan. They will be able to help you determine what is reasonable and what the courts are likely to accept or not accept.
Once life has returned to normal (which will likely occur only after an effective treatment or vaccine is available), you will be expected to follow the terms of your original child custody plan. It’s important to remember that your rights to your children after the pandemic has been eliminated may depend on how you handled custody during the red and yellow phases.
Families have lots of questions about parenting and custody in Raleigh during the pandemic. The uncertainty has made many parents anxious about their rights after the immediate danger has passed or how to react if they feel their child is not safe.
Here are some of the most common questions we hear at our North Carolina firm about child custody, divorce, and COVID-19.
No. Because these “breaks” would not normally occur, they do not legally affect your custody plan. The parent who would normally have custody of the child on those dates will not have their rights taken away. If COVID-19 has affected your ability to provide normal care during these dates, you will need to communicate with your legal team and co-parent on making temporary changes.
Follow the court’s directions for your child custody plan as closely as possible. The North Carolina courts will not see the pandemic as an excuse for changing the terms of the agreement without notice. Communication is important for retaining your rights.
It’s always better to be amicable and flexible during these kinds of situations whenever possible. No matter how contentious your relationship with your ex is, remember that your children will benefit from your ability to put their interests before your history with your former spouse.
All of the decisions you make concerning custody of your children should be in their best interests. If you start to develop COVID-19 symptoms, then it’s important to contact your healthcare provider, legal counsel, and co-parent right away. Do not try to conceal your symptoms, and be sure to get tested as soon as you can.
It’s perfectly understandable to be worried about your children’s health and safety as the virus continues to spread. You should follow the latest guidelines from the state of North Carolina, as well as the most recent CDC guidelines and take precautions when traveling for visitation. In some cases, visitation may need to take place virtually, depending on the circumstances.
You are empowered to care for your children and to protect them whenever they are with you. With that said, documentation is important. Your decisions could be questioned at a later date and it’s important to have a record of your thought processes.
If you find that your co-parent is not following the rules of your custody arrangement, do not escalate the situation yourself. Talk to your lawyer and determine the best path forward. It’s sometimes not possible to avoid arguments and tension over custody matters, depending on you and your co-parent’s willingness to work together, but it’s always best to try and keep these discussions as civil as possible.
Remember, it doesn’t reflect well on you to be petty or unreasonable, especially as you navigate sharing custody during the COVID-19 pandemic. Keep detailed notes and remember to think about the long term if you’re tempted to lash out.
COVID-19 has made life very difficult for couples seeking divorce. In North Carolina, the divorcing parties must live separately for 12 consecutive months before the divorce will be granted. If the couple moves back in together at any point, the clock resets and the separation period must be restarted.
If possible, it is best to re-initiate the separation as soon as possible. Although COVID-19 has made divorce much more challenging, it’s always better to not draw out the process if possible.
Divorce is hard on families, and children lose a lot of stability when their parents separate. COVID-19 adds an extra layer of uncertainty and can make the divorce even more difficult for children. Because of this, it’s best to avoid making any emergency changes to your parenting plan during the pandemic unless it’s absolutely necessary.
If you ever have trouble with making decisions about your children during the pandemic, it can be helpful to take a pause and consider how any potential decision might affect the physical and emotional health of your children. The goal should always be to create a safe and stable environment.
For help with questions about child custody and divorce in Raleigh, North Carolina, contact Gailor Hunt divorce lawyers. We have been monitoring the COVID-19 situation since it first appeared in North Carolina and can help you navigate the gray areas of child custody during this difficult time. Call 919-367-1512 to schedule a consultation.