Lauren Fields March 19, 2020

Navigating custody and parenting time arrangements during an international pandemic is uncharted territory for many parents. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 disease a pandemic. On March 13, 2020, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in the United States. Every day we are learning new information about this deadly disease. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that civilians practice “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus. The CDC further recommends that individuals go into quarantine if they are infected. The question remains, how does this virus impact custody arrangements and parenting plans that are currently ordered by the court? 

There is no “bright-line” rule to navigate an international pandemic, and family law lawyers cannot predict how this virus will spread. That being said, parents should continue to follow all court-ordered custody arrangements and parenting plans unless a child or a household member becomes infected with COVID-19. During parenting time exchanges, all parties should follow the CDC guidelines for hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, and not touching your face. As parents, plan at-home activities during your parenting time instead of going to public places. Parents should disinfect and wash all items and clothing that are exchanged between households. Unilaterally withholding parenting time without good cause can come with very severe consequences from the Judge. As long as everyone in your household is healthy, your custody arrangement and parenting plan should resume as normal. 

If a child or household member does exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, immediately call your doctor. At that time, best practices are to follow all recommendations from your doctor at that time, including quarantine if necessary. If the doctor recommends quarantine for the child at one parent’s house, the other parent should follow the doctor’s recommendations regarding any visitation. If the doctor recommends that a parent should go into quarantine, the other parent should assume custody of the child temporarily until the doctor recommends otherwise. Judges will rarely fault parents for following the recommendations of an accredited health-care professional, especially given the severity of this virus. 

If a parent is seeking a modification or enforcement of an existing custody arrangement or parenting plan, COVID-19 may make it difficult to get a hearing scheduled soon. Many courts across the country are closing, reducing in-person hearings, or continuing cases out for months. If you are seeking a modification of your custody order or parenting plan, review your court documents to see if you previously agreed to attend mediation or another form of alternative dispute resolution prior to either party seeking court intervention. If you did agree to mediate disputed issues before court intervention, invoke that clause with the other parent and set up mediation while the courts are closed. Some mediators will allow remote sessions with parties, or you can request that each parent sit in separate rooms during mediation. If you can reach agreements in writing that are filed with the court, you can avoid waiting months to get a hearing date to address your concerns with the Judge. 

The coronavirus pandemic may cause problems with your custody arrangement or parenting plan. My advice is to listen to your health care professionals and discuss your case with a competent attorney who can guide you through this pandemic safely.