Many parents question how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic impacts child custody and custody exchanges. While no official guidelines have been released to date, here are five tips to consider in all cases.
- Know what your custody order or custody agreement requires.Whether you have a court order or written agreement (contract) for custody, it is extremely important to know and understand what you are required to do. Most custody orders and agreements do not have provisions for global pandemics or any event similar to the COVID-19 health crisis. That being said, if your custody order or agreement anticipates emergencies, serious illnesses, or natural disasters, that language may speak to at least some of your rights and obligations during this time.Additionally, while most court orders and agreements for custody state that the custodial parent may make day to day decisions for his/her child without the other parent’s prior agreement, they do not allow the custodial parent to unilaterally deny visitation or restrict the other parent’s custodial time in the event of a disagreement. Deciding to deny, restrict, or modify the other parent’s custody, without his/her agreement, is an extreme measure; and before doing so, you should seek legal advice. If you unilaterally deny or otherwise modify your co-parent’s visitation or custody, you could be in violation of your custody order or agreement and possibly face significant consequences related to contempt of court.
- Read the shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, or other applicable state and local orders.One question we have been asked repeatedly is, “Does the shelter in place order mean I do not have to exchange my children?” As of right now, the answer is no. In fact, some orders list custody exchanges as “essential” and do not impose any limitations on travel for this purpose. As of April 6, 2020, this includes orders from Wake County, Durham County and North Carolina. If you have questions as to how applicable stay-at-home orders may impact your custody order or agreement, you should contact an attorney immediately.
- Try to reach an agreement with your co-parent on any changes in custody or custodial exchanges.If you have concerns about an upcoming custodial exchange, discuss those with your co-parent in advance. Try to agree on a temporary parenting plan to address your concerns until the shelter-in-place and/or social distancing restrictions are lifted. If you and your co-parent agree a custodial exchange is not in your children’s best interest, schedule make up time and ensure you are utilizing FaceTime or other video chat options to maintain quality contact between your children and co-parent.
- Follow the CDC guidelines for limiting the spread of the virus at exchanges.If possible, have a discussion with your co-parent regarding your custodial schedule (and any helpful, temporary modifications), what safety and social distancing measures you both are taking, what exposure each household has to others outside of the home, and how to limit contact between parents or other third parties at exchanges. Remember to maintain social distancing at exchanges and pack hand sanitizer if you have it available. If practical, encourage your children to reduce the items they transport between houses, and to sterilize the belongings they bring into your home. Remind your children to wash their hands as soon as you get home from an exchange.
- When in doubt, seek professional and experienced legal advice from an experienced family law or divorce attorney. Denying or unilaterally modifying custodial time or custody exchanges are drastic actions that our courts do not take lightly, and they can lead to significant consequences down the road.
The above tips apply to cases involving court orders or written agreements for custody; however, they are also instructive if you are sharing custody pursuant to a voluntary, informal arrangement. The best practice in these situations is to be reasonable, follow the Golden Rule, and seek legal advice if you have questions.
Remember that you should always consult with an experienced family law attorney on your specific set of circumstances. If you have questions or concerns about your custody order or agreement, your voluntary custody arrangement, or how to handle any other specific family law issue, call our office to consult with one of our child custody attorneys.