Co-parenting can be challenging even in the best of times. Many separated or divorced parents now face the added challenge of navigating co-parenting issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal government, along with many state governments, have asked residents to follow social distancing guidelines, and some states have issued executive orders requiring residents to stay at home. Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina issued a statewide Stay At Home order effective as of Monday, March 30, 2020 at 5 p.m.
What do these social distancing and ”stay at home” orders mean for divorced parents who share custody of their children? One of the most common questions asked is whether parents can still leave their homes for purposes of custody and visitation exchanges. In North Carolina, the answer right now is “yes.” Section 1(viii) of North Carolina’s Stay at Home order specifically allows parents to travel to or from their residences for purposes of child custody or visitation arrangements.
North Carolina’s Stay at Home order does not specifically address most other COVID-19 related custody or visitation questions that may arise, for example: What should you do if your ex is not willing to practice social distancing? What if your ex lives in another state and custody exchanges require air-travel? What if your ex lives in another city that currently has a much higher rate of COVID-19 cases? How do you handle these situations?
The reality is that co-parenting during a global pandemic is new territory, and right now, there are very few clear-cut answers. Most existing custody agreements or orders do not address what, if any, custody schedule changes should be made during times like these. Pandemic-related parenting disputes are new territory to family court judges as well, which makes it challenging to predict how courts are likely to rule on COVID-19 related parenting disputes. In addition, with the exception of emergency matters, family courts hearings are on hold until at least April 17, 2020. That means that even if parents ask the court to resolve their COVID-19 related disputes, it is unlikely that a family court judge will have a hearing and rule on the request until sometime after April 17, 2020.
Where does that leave you if you are a separated or divorced parent trying to navigate these new COVID-19 related co-parenting issues?
As one family’s story shows, COVID-19 may present a new opportunity for divorced parents to improve their co-parenting relationship. Rather than immediately asking the court to intervene, consider working with your ex to try to mutually agree on temporary adjustments to your custody arrangement that are in the children’s best interests in light of these new circumstances.
Of course, in some cases, exigent circumstances may exist that warrant asking the court to enter an order on an emergency basis. Judges evaluate requests for an emergency custody order on a case-by-case basis. If you have questions about whether your particular situation constitutes an emergency, consider contacting a family law attorney for guidance.
Some parents have asked if they are within their rights to withhold their children from their ex if they are unable to reach an agreement on co-parenting issues stemming from COVID-19. Right now, there is no definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. For example, a judge may agree with a custodial parent’s decision to withhold custody for a period of time in a situation where it is likely the other parent has been directly exposed to COVID-19, has not tested negative for the virus, and the self-isolation time-period (as recommended or ordered by the government) has not yet passed. On the other hand, a judge may disapprove of a parent’s decision to withhold custodial time from the other parent in a situation where the other parent has followed the government’s social distancing or ”stay at home” order, and there is no objective basis for believing he or she has been directly exposed to the virus.
It most situations, it is in children’s best interest for their parents to make every reasonable effort to work as a team during a health crisis such as COVID-19. Keep in mind that you may ultimately end up having to go to court with your ex if you cannot come to some agreement. If that happens, a judge will likely look favorably on the parent who attempted to work collaboratively with the other parent to resolve COVID-19 related custody issues. On the other hand, a judge will likely look unfavorably on a parent who refused to communicate or be reasonable.
If you have questions about coping with custody issues during the COVID-19 emergency, contact a family law attorney experienced in the field of custody and visitation.