Families everywhere are struggling with how to handle child custody and visitation during COVID-19 and the Governor’s stay-at-home order. Some co-parents are quarantining together and others fighting about whether or not the exchanges should still be taking place.
How Do I Handle Child Exchanges And Visitation Right Now?
The Governor’s stay-at-home order poses a difficult question as it relates to the impact on your court-ordered child custody and visitation. Your Parenting Plan may account for many scenarios, but it is highly doubtful that it considers the current health crisis. With the instruction to remain at home, except for essential activities, a common misinterpretation is that Governor’s order supersedes the parenting plan, and children should, therefore, remain in one parent’s home. That is not the case.
The residential schedule you have with the other parent should continue to be followed as written, so long as it feasible to do so. You likely worked very hard to establish this schedule that you and the other parent believe is in the best interest of your children, so it will continue to be in their best interest to maintain this contact with both parents. Following a routine is often essential to a child’s sense of well-being.
What If I Don’t Have A Parenting Plan?
Many parents operate on an informal child custody and visitation arrangement, whether it is because they have not wanted or needed court intervention, or because they are in the middle of active litigation and the court has not been available to decide a temporary or final parenting plan due to the court suspending non-emergency hearings. If you and the other parent are working through visitation by agreement, continue to follow that agreement.
Your kids may likely be having a difficult time transitioning themselves, so keeping consistent contact with the other parent, as you have been doing in the past, will allow them to attach to a schedule that is familiar to them. If you choose to initiate a divorce or parenting plan action in the future, the court will look kindly on cooperation between parents, and similarly, will take pause if they feel that a parent has taken advantage of the circumstances the health crisis has created.
What If I Have Concerns about the Safety of My Child at the Other Parent’s Home?
The Governor’s orders are in place for a reason, so there may be circumstances where deviating from the parenting plan or agreement may be warranted, including if you or the other parent has been exposed to the virus or other illness, or if employment causes you or the other parent to be in contact with many people. Those that reside with individuals who are at higher risk for becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, such as the elderly, and those with underlying medical conditions, may consider deviating from the parenting plan to avoid exposing those vulnerable people.
If you or the other parent has a safety concern, communicate this with the other parent. Co-parenting may be especially difficult during times of high stress, but now is the time to work together on an arrangement that can work for both of you. If personal contact with the other parent poses a risk, consider daily phone calls, or FaceTime and Skype calls as an alternative.
Makeup time should also be a discussion when considering reinstating personal contact with your child. If possible, have some of these discussions or agreements in writing, such as text message or email. Should communications fall through, and you or the other parent intend to address these concerns to the court when they begin to hear non-emergency matters again, documented communications will be your best form of evidence to illustrate to the court how you and the other parent were handling this period of visitation.
The court may use this information to determine whether a parent was acting in the best interest of the child, or if bad faith may have had a hand to play.
What Else Should I Be Doing?
The remaining instructions given by the Governor and the CDC should still be followed: wash your hands, disinfect exposed surfaces, stay at home as much as you can, and practice social distancing. Use your common sense when exchanging your children and try to avoid involving other third parties, if possible. Avoid unnecessarily exposing your children to risk.
This is an unprecedented time. It is natural and expected to need additional answers and guidance on how to respond to the current health crisis. Our team of attorneys is available to address your questions, and is here to serve you effectively, with appropriate social distancing, through telephone and video consults.
If you want more information about how Washington’s stay-at-home order may be affecting your divorce visit our COVID-19 page. If you have questions or concerns, our staff are still able to provide legal service by telephone or video conference.