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What Happens if Separated or Divorced Parents Can't Agree on Parenting Time During the COVID-19 Crisis?

Posted by Aaron Thomas | Mar 31, 2020 | 0 Comments

In these trying times, you may have questions about parenting issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Should your parenting time schedule stay the same? Does final decision-making over medical decisions give me the right to deny parenting time to someone who isn't social distancing? Does final decision-making over education extend to home-schooling practices? Do we stick to the school schedule, including holidays, even if there's no school?

Your Parenting Plan probably doesn't have a clause entitled “In case of global pandemic,” so in this article, I'll share some general advice, followed by some tips based on what we've seen courts doing with respect to disagreements over parenting issues during this unique time.

First: Be Reasonable. This advice could go for any time, not just during the current health crisis. You don't want to take action against your child's other parent that you wouldn't want done to you. Judges will probably not take kindly to a parent unilaterally deciding that the other parent isn't fit to see the kids during this time, and most judges we've heard from are urging parents to continue the normal schedule while this crisis plays out. 

Second: Talk it out with the other parent before making decisions. This also should go without saying, but before you take any action, try discussing it with your child's other parent first. If you have questions about the other parent's social distancing compliance, calmly let him or her know your concerns. See if you can agree on a set of rules for minimizing the risk to your children – you may just find that you agree on more than you disagree. If you do agree on some coronavirus guidelines, it's not a bad idea to put them in writing (email or text counts) just to ensure that there are no misunderstandings. 

Third: Speak with a family law attorney before taking action that disagrees with your parenting plan. There will certainly be times when you and your child's other parent may not agree, or there are issues that can't be dealt with between just to two of you. For example, if your child's other parent is showing symptoms of COVID-19 but insists on continuing parenting time, you need to reach out to your attorney immediately. While many non-emergency court dates have been cancelled or postponed, if there's a true emergency, most courts appear to have judges available to help resolve your issue. Similarly, if your child's other parent is refusing to return the child for your parenting time, talk to your lawyer before taking matters into your own hands.

Also, general tips for all parents: these are both best practices for you to follow, as well as things to request from your child's other parent:

  1. Parents should encourage and ensure the children's participation in on-line schooling (if provided) and the completion of homework.
  2. Follow local, state, and federal orders regarding social distancing, limits on public gathering, stay-at-home orders, etc.
  3. Follow all travel restrictions from any relevant authorities.
  4. Notify the other parent in case of any COVID-19 symptoms or possible exposure, for you, as well as anyone else in your household or whom the children may have come in contact with.

Now for some specifics: Some counties have issued guidance on how to handle parenting time during these times.

Fulton County is telling parents to continue following their school schedules – see the Fulton County Notice of Clarification: Domestic Relations Custody Orders for School and Holiday Visitation.

Dekalb County is also telling parents to stick to their school calendar – see the Dekalb County Notice of Clarification for Cases Governed by the Dekalb County School Calendar, Domestic Relations Custody Orders for School and Holiday Visitation

The pertinent part of both Orders state as follows: “visitation will continue to be governed by the previously published school calendar regardless of any break or homeschooling necessitated by the current public health crisis.  Spring Break, holiday and summer visitation periods will continue to be governed by the controlling school calendar in the manner stated in the applicable custody order in each case.”

Other judges have unofficially been communicating their policies through other channels, and the gist that parents need to hear is generally the same: don't make big changes on your own without a very good reason. If you believe you have special circumstances, by all means, give us a call for advice. There are several questions that an attorney may need to hear the specific circumstances of before giving advice:

  • What if a family member has been in the vicinity of someone who may have the virus or is not practicing social distancing? Do I withhold parenting time?  Am I at risk of being in contempt of my parenting plan? 
  • What if I have unanticipated child-care costs during this time? Who is responsible for those expenses? 
  • If my child's other parent lives out of state, am I required to put the child on a plane during this time? If driving is possible should we try to exchange via car?

These can be incredibly challenging and difficult decisions for any parent to have to make for their family. As family law attorneys, we recognize that your parenting plan is not going to account for every possible contingency. We all know that gray areas are the ones that are filled with conflict, and the more we can clarify now and try to fill in these gaps, it will make it easier to determine what to do when faced with parenting challenges down the road.

If you have any questions or concerns about your child custody situation during the COVID-19 outbreak, please feel free to contact Aaron Thomas Law. We will remain open and are offering remote consultations via Facetime, Skype, Google Hangouts and phone.  Call now to set up an appointment: (404) 969-1219.

About the Author

Aaron Thomas

Attorney Aaron Thomas began his legal career in 2002, as an in-house staff attorney for Habitat for Humanity International. He then honed his trial skills from 2004 to 2007 at the Dekalb County Public Defender's office, rising quickly through the ranks, representing hundreds of indigent clients facin...

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