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Coronavirus and Child Custody: 4 Tips

Mar 21, 2020 | Child Custody, COVID-19 Pandemic, Divorce/Marital Dissolution

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR, LIZ BILLIES (Lawyer & Author)

www.thedivorcelawyerlife.com

You can’t turn on the news, log in to social media, or walk out the door without hearing the words Coronavirus or COVID-19. I mean did you think a few weeks ago that you would be reading about this virus on a divorce law blog? Trust me, this was not in my scheduled list of topics for this month.

While other countries have been dealing with this virus for some time, the United States is just starting to see the effects of this pandemic. Schools are closed, people are working from home and major sport and music events are being postponed. March Madness, how about March Sadness, amirite?

While there is no question that the Coronavirus is effecting major events, it is already effecting every day lives as well. And, if you are divorced, there is no question that it is going to affect your child custody arrangement. Are you saying, Liz, I didn’t even think of that! Don’t worry, that’s what I’m here for!

Here are four tips for dealing with your child custody issues in the time of Corona:

  • Have a plan if your child’s school or childcare is closed because of the Coronavirus;
  • Make sure you communicate with your coparent about scheduling changes;
  • Consider what you will do if you, your coparent or your child gets sick with the Coronavirus; and
  • Be patient and flexible with your coparent and your children.

Have a plan if your child’s school or childcare is closed because of the Coronavirus.

Are you in a situation where you still have to go to work but your child’s school or daycare is closed? Are you a healthcare worker or essential government personnel? What if you just need to get some work done while you are at home and you aren’t sure what to do with your kids?

First, check your present custody agreement to see if it includes a provision about who is responsible for the children if they are home from school due to an illness or school closure. When I prepare my custody agreements, I always make sure that I include an exchange time for each weekday and not just leave exchange as “after school.”

What does this look like?

I will generally draft the regular custody schedule language to say something like, “Father shall have custody of the children on Wednesdays after school, or if there is no school, 9:00 a.m.” This way, if there is no school, dad knows that he is to get/be responsible for the kids starting at 9:00 a.m. on this day.

So you may be saying to yourself, thanks Liz, that’s great to know for next time, but what do we do right now during this Coronavirus outbreak and I don’t have that kind of language?

Don’t worry! Like I said, I got you!

Here are some options for modifying your custody schedule during the Coronavirus.

Whether you like it or not, you are going to have to speak with your coparent and make some decisions together. If both of you are home from work this is easy. You can likely still follow your regular schedule and each of you can have the children on your regular days. You may still need to communicate with your coparent on when that “day” starts if it is not clear in your custody order. Hopefully because this is an emergency and temporary situation, you and your coparent can work this out with little strife.

If only one of you is off of work, then perhaps you should consider modifying your schedule temporarily to have the children stay with that parent so that they can watch them during the day while you the other parent is working. This may be important if the working parent is employed at a place where they have great exposure to the Coronavirus. While you may be upset to be away from your children, during this scary time, it is more important to limit their exposure to this virus. Remember, this is a temporary situation.

What if you don’t want to do that or don’t think it’s necessary? If that is the case then you can simply take them to the other parent’s home on your days instead of taking them to school or daycare. In reality you are keeping their same routine, just taking them to a different place during the work day.

I write this based on the current state of the country. You may get into a situation where you have to “shelter in place” or you don’t simply feel comfortable shuttling your child back and forth between houses. If this becomes the case, I again urge you to communicate and work with your coparent to resolve this issue without looking for the court to provide guidance.

Many of the courts in my area are closed so, I assume the ones in your area may be as well. Will the judges treat your issue as an emergency? Maybe. Maybe not. While you may not think that your coparent is being “fair” it really isn’t about that at this point. It is about the safety of your children. You can always work out make up time after this pandemic has passed.

What if you both you and your coparent have to work?

If this is your situation, then it is likely that you will need to rely on extended family to help during this time. For example, I have a case where both parents will continue working during the Coronavirus outbreak. They will likely be relying on grandparents as the children’s school and after-school childcare is closed for at least two weeks.

What if you don’t have any family that can help?

Don’t have any extended family in the area who can care for your children? You and your coparent will need to either (1) decide who is in a better position to take off of work or (2) hire a third party to watch your children during the day. Many colleges are closed and teachers are out of work right now. Perhaps hiring one of them could solve your issue!

Again, working together and communicating is key here. While you may wish to speak to your ex as little as possible, now is a time when you need to work together to take care of your children. Remember the phrase about the high road? Get on it. Now.

Make sure you communicate with your coparent about scheduling changes.

Are you the parent in charge of your child’s schedule? Do you RSVP for the birthday parties and sign them up for baseball? This isn’t uncommon. Usually one parent is the planner and is responsible for telling the other parent when and where the child needs to be after school and on weekends. Can you relate to this?

In addition to school and work closings, your child’s extra-curriculars and social events may be cancelled or modified as well. For example, did a birthday party get cancelled because we are supposed to be practicing social distancing? Is that swim meet postponed to May?

Make sure that you keep your coparent up-to-date on all of these modifications. Nothing creates more frustration than hearing about changes last minute, Coronavirus or not.

A great way to do this is to use a shared calendar or consistent method of communication. If you are using Our Family Wizard or another coparenting app, make sure that you put all changes on the shared calendar as soon as you can. I would also suggest sending a message through the app noting the change. This is a hectic time and the other parent may simply miss it without that notification.

Consider what you will do if you, your coparent or your child gets sick with the Coronavirus.

While I certainly pray that none of my readers or your families become afflicted with this virus, the numbers seem to be against us. So what should you do if a member of your family gets COVID-19?

First and foremost, follow the directions of the CDC regarding treatment and testing. However, what to do and where to go greatly varies from state to state right now. Therefore, it is equally important to check out your state and county’s Department of Health websites for what to do in your area. For example, some denser areas have drive through testing. Other less afflicted areas are finding testing to be less available.

Second, if you believe that you or your child is sick you need to let your coparent know ASAP. If you have shared custody, your coparent has the right to be involved in the medical decisions regarding your children. This would include taking them for Coronavirus testing and treatment.

In addition, if you or your child tests positive for the virus, it is likely that your coparent will also need to be tested or, at a minimum, self quarantine. Again, follow the medical experts in this regard. However, I would think this would also likely apply to anyone who lives in your coparent’s household as well.

In short, this is not a time to keep medical information to yourself. In addition, sharing this information with your coparent is likely required under your custody order/agreement anyways. No matter how much you may hate your ex, they need to know what is going on during this time. It could actually save a life.

Be patient and flexible with your co-parent.

Let’s be honest. No one knows what is going to happen. We’ve never been through something like this before in our lifetimes. So, the more you can be patient and flexible with your coparent during this outbreak, the better it will be for yourself and your children.

Are you feeling anxious or afraid? Chances are your children are too. It is important that you and your coparent display a united front and keep things as stress-free and normal for your children as possible. Fighting and panicking will not do them (or yourself) any good. I would also suggest that you and your coparent talk to your kids about what is happening and reassure them as much as possible. Plan some fun activities while school is out of session. Make some family memories. The less added stress the better for everyone.

So what should you do now?

Everywhere you look there are recommendations for what to do to prevent and/or treat the Coronavirus. Here’s what to do to make sure that this outbreak doesn’t cause added stress for you, your coparent, and your kids:

  • Make sure that you and your coparent have a plan for who will care of the children if school is closed or travel is limited;
  • Let your coparent know about any cancellations or postponements ASAP;
  • Have a plan for what you will do if you, your co-parent or your child gets sick with the Coronavirus; and
  • Be patient and flexible with your co-parent so as to reduce the stress on your children during this scary time.

I want to wish you all my love and care during this time. We will get through it. Stay safe and most importantly, wash your hands!!!

What’s next on the blog?

Are you in the middle of a divorce during this pandemic? Were you close to settling the property division in your case and now aren’t sure what to do next? Later this week, I’ll be posting an article about how the Coronavirus may affect your marital property division. Certain assets have been greatly affected by this pandemic. Learn which ones and what to do.

Or, do you want to know if I think the Coronavirus will cause a spike in divorce filings in a few months? There is info out of China that may provide some insight as to how self-quarantining and working from home may affect the US divorce rates. I’ll be writing about that next week.

The attorneys at Drury Pullen, A Professional Law Corporation are available to assist you with your family law needs during this unprecedented time.  Please call us 24/7 at (805) 879-7523 and leave a message if you do not reach a live person.  Calls will be returned as they are received.  You are also welcome to email us at [email protected]  We remain available to our clients and community with remote services such as court filings, negotiations, and mediation.  Please follow us on Instagram at CaliforniaDivorce and come back to this blog for more information.

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