As a parent, you want to spend as much time with your children as humanly possible. You want to watch them learn and grow, as the years pass. Even after a divorce, you still are able to enjoy precious moments with them during your parenting time.
However, with the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic that has swept the country, your parenting time may become part of the uncertainty.
While you want to maintain the World Health Organization recommendations regarding social distancing, hygiene, and sanitation, you still should be able to observe regular parenting time during this difficult time. However, your co-parent may be making that more difficult.
From a safety standpoint, it is understandable that your co-parent is concerned over the prospect that your shared children may catch the virus, or that you may while they are in your care. Additionally, many areas of the country have shelter-in-place orders that prevent unnecessary travel.
However, that does not extend to child custody drop-offs or pick-ups.
Issues with shelter-in-place and custody travel
According to Cordell & Cordell family law attorney Charles Hatley, residents are required to stay indoors except to perform certain necessary activities. These activities include buying food, seeking medical treatment, banking, and laundromat services. This also includes any travel necessary to enforce a court order and for purposes of caring for a child or family member.
Therefore, the shelter-in-place orders, or stay-at-home orders, do not impact your right to parenting time, whether there is actually a custody and parenting time order. However, that does not mean the other parent will not misconstrue or try to abuse these orders in an attempt to block your access to your child.
You may be like many parents during this coronavirus crisis who are being forced to miss scheduled parenting time because of a co-parent who feels honoring the court order is unsafe.
Facing parenting time denial
During a recent webinar, Cordell & Cordell CEO, Executive/Managing Partner Scott Trout and Partner Dan Cuneo discussed how the coronavirus has been impacting regularly scheduled parenting time, and they spoke about the challenges that fathers have been facing as they deal with the ramifications of existing and legally-binding custody schedules no longer being upheld.
“If you are being denied time, there still may be remedies available to you,” Mr. Cuneo said. “We want you to reach out and contact an attorney and discuss what are your options, what do we need to do. It could depend upon the jurisdiction that you’re in. There are essential remedies available to you, and we want to make sure that you’re not being taken advantage of and that you’re not sitting back and missing out on time.”
Additionally, this webinar detailed how this type of situation is being handled in several areas of the country. For example, in California, where the shelter-in-place order has been in effect since March 19, family courts are emphasizing the use of common sense, according to Cordell & Cordell Lead Litigator Jason Hopper.
“The standing order from almost all of our courts are that the existing orders are to be followed,” Mr. Hopper said. “Parenting time and is deemed essential travel. It’s not within the confines of the shelter in place rules.”
Filing with family court still possible
While there may be logistical issues involved in the family court process during this shutdown associated with the coronavirus pandemic, you and your family law attorney still are able to file in your state.
“In-person court is banned, so if you have a case, where you are supposed to be seeing your children and your ex-wife has cut you off, we can’t run full throttle into court to file anything and get in front of a judge immediately,” said Cordell & Cordell Litigation Partner Kristin Zurek. “But our courts are still open for filings, so it’s important to know that if something is going on and you want to bring it to the judge’s attention, go talk to your lawyer. You have the ability to upload pleadings to the court.”
While the court may be receiving filings, you may need more, in order to incite action from the family courts under these circumstances. You may need to illustrate that this is an emergency situation.
“The judge’s determination needs to be whether or not this is an emergency that requires a phone conference or a video conference to deal with it or if it’s something that’s going to have to wait until court reopens,” Ms. Zurek said.
While the courts may find that the situation is not deemed to be an emergency, it still is worthwhile to file, offering the court documented evidence of how much you care about your children.
“It’s still important to get that on file as soon as possible, because you don’t want strategically, the court saying when court is back in session ‘Well, you must have not thought it was that important, because you didn’t file anything,’” said Cordell & Cordell Litigation Partner Kelly Burris. “It’s important to get things on file and see what options you have.”
Child support challenges
Additionally, issues surrounding child support may arise during the coronavirus pandemic that may require legal attention. Much of the population is experiencing financial hardship, and many are expected to lose their employment. If you do lose your job or find yourself with some sort of wage reduction, how will you support your children and pay the court-ordered child support during this challenging time?
“If you are facing a job loss or a wage reduction, one of the first, most practical things you can do without involving an attorney is to approach your employer and ask if they will be providing any qualified disaster relief payments,” Mr. Hopper said. “Typically, when an employer provides any type of compensation or benefit to an employee, that’s going to be a taxable event. However, there are provisions within federal code and Internal Revenue code, as well as in many states’ revenue codes that allow for employers to provide to employees when there is a disaster declaration, like there is currently nationwide, qualified disaster relief payments.”
While this may partially assist your financial situation, you still must deal with the child support order itself. Given the circumstance, seeking legal assistance may be the only way of navigating these complex waters and avoiding the piling up of payments that you can no longer afford.
“Consult with an attorney,” Mr. Hopper said. “You likely have modification rights available to you.”
If you do not pursue modification, the child support payments do not go away, just because you no longer have a job or because of the coronavirus pandemic. You still can find yourself facing hefty child support payments that if ignored, can become overwhelming, especially with your children caught in the crossfires.
“You have to file your modification immediately,” said Cordell & Cordell Litigation Partner Rick Julius. “If things change and you don’t find it to be financially beneficial to you once the courts get open, you at least, have that decision down the road. Pennsylvania courts [Mr. Julius’ licensed state] are only going to go back as that modification filing date, in order to do that. It may end up that when it gets heard, that the financial situation has corrected itself and you may be entitled to retroactive modification of that time period.”
Parent, co-parent, and monitor the situation
With all of the health and economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is necessary for you to learn as much as possible regarding your state’s family court system and how they handle emergency situations. That way, if you find yourself facing unemployment with a large monthly child support payment, or a co-parent who refuses to adhere to the parenting time issued by the court, you know how to react.
It also is important to understand the perspective of your children during this pandemic. They may be confused or scared, and as a parent, it is necessary for you to take time for them, explaining to them the situation in terms that they understand and monitor their wellness as much as possible.
If it is possible to remain amicable with your co-parent during this time, do so. Communication and cooperation are necessary components to co-parenting during normal situations, but with the coronavirus pandemic, it becomes even more crucial that you put the needs of your children first, before any animosity.
While this may be an instance of uncertainty, it is necessary for you to monitor the situation from a legal perspective and contact your family law attorney if you feel that changes need to be made.
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