Co-parenting is, under the best circumstances, not always easy.
You’re sharing a child with someone with whom you couldn’t share a home and a marriage. Even when you sincerely want your child to have a great relationship with their other parent, it can be emotional and difficult.
Throw in the complications of a pandemic, and many divorced parents probably have serious concerns.
For example, my ex and I are following our usual schedule, but school closures and health worries have the potential to spark drama in split families. I checked in with Kelly Decker, an attorney at Decker Poole in Fort Worth with extensive expertise in family law, to see how people are handling it all.
“The calls, texts and emails were on fire for about a week after many North Texas schools chose to characterize their closures as ‘extending spring break,’” Decker explains. “That caused families who don’t get along to start with to go nuclear.”
That’s because a co-parent tends to have spring break every other year. Some may have interpreted an “extended” spring break as license to keep the child throughout that period.
Decker says most parents processed the situation and acted sensibly. “There are others, though, whose anxiety has gone into overdrive, and they have yet to exchange their child. I have one client who has not seen their 12-year-old in four weeks.”
And you may have read about the case in Florida of the ER doctor who lost temporary custody of her daughter because of her role on the front lines of the pandemic. (She regained shared custody while a court reviews the judge’s order giving full custody to her ex-husband during this time.)
“In my opinion, that judge went rogue or there is more to the story,” notes Decker. “I would not want any parent in the North Texas area to worry that that would happen to them or think that they could make an oversimplistic argument that a first responder doesn’t get to have possession of a child. I have no reason to think that would happen here. None. Zilch.”
Here are Decker’s 10 things that co-parents should be aware of during this time:
1. COVID-19 does not excuse you from the order.
Every effort has to be made to follow the court-ordered schedule. If you are the family that follows orders and doesn’t agree on a weekly basis on how to share time, then you need to continue to follow the details.
Surrender on time and at the right location. If your community is “locked down,” then you still need to try to meet that schedule. Adjust on the time and the location by agreement as needed, but wholeheartedly try to get there.
If you do not comply with the order and have no documented history of meaningful attempts to return the children, then you better have one heck of a lawyer.
2. Higher courts are involved.
We have seen the great emergent work of the Texas Supreme Court and the collaborate effort of District Courts in distributing interpretations of never-before-seen issues. We recently got orders that courts were going to consider the original calendar of the school before the COVID-19 cancellations.
That quick move ensured most kids were returned to the other parent before school was supposed to resume rather than permitting a parent to keep the child based upon the technicality that spring break had been “extended.” This could happen again as the crisis unfolds. Look for these before you draw any hard lines.
3. You can always, always agree.
You can always agree to something other than what your order says. Best practice to is to get it in writing—email is best. There are too many ways to misread a text.
4. Protect the children.
Children need to be in the safest environment possible. Do what you have to do to keep the children safe from this virus.
There is some data that children are getting sick, so allow them to be in the best environment for that. Consider the following: houses are better than shared apartments, which parent has the resources to actually attempt the home-school environment, which parent is less likely to be exposed to the front lines of the pandemic, and so on.
If you are a first responder, and you feel compelled to keep a distance from your children, then do it. You will not be punished by the courts (or shouldn’t be) for that selfless decision.
5. Provide notice.
Parents should inform the other of any symptoms in their households immediately.
6. Take advantage of electronic communication.
There are so many options for parents now. There’s FaceTime, Marco Polo, Zoom, video games, apps and so forth that allow kids and their parents to communicate. No rules during this crisis; do it as freely as possible.
7. Remember: child support can be modified.
This is a real thing. People are losing their jobs left and right, and wild predictions are being made that unemployment will surge to 20%.
If a parent who normally pays child support loses his or her job, he or she is entitled to a modification of his child support. The courts are mostly closed, but still, there is a way to put a pin in the arrears (total amount owed) by filing a modification action and asserting that the new calculation should be made retroactive to the date of the filing.
Because unpaid child support can land a person in jail, it’s important to change the amount as soon as possible. Generally, the lowest that child support can go is based upon minimum wage, therefore: $227 for one child, $284 for two children, $340 for three, and so on.
This does not include the ongoing obligation to insure the child and cover uninsured expenses. If you are left with nothing and you have primary conservatorship of a child, you have grounds to file an emergency motion. Emergency motions are currently being heard by the local courts.
8. Supervised visitation can (and might) be adjusted.
If you are currently visiting your child under terms of supervised possession, it could foreseeably be cancelled. Be ready for that. At this time, exchanges at the courthouse have been cancelled and as people become sicker, there will be fewer willing supervisors.
9. Consider a private attorney if CPS is unavailable.
We may see an uptick in reports of violence and child abuse. If CPS is backlogged, you are free to hire a private attorney and seek to have an emergency motion. Again, emergency matters are being considered by our fearless judges.
10. Make-up time can be arranged.
Yes, there is such a thing as a motion for make-up time, and those hearings will be filling the courthouses to settle the score against parents who did not play fair during this crisis. For Decker’s tips on asking for make-up time—including sample scenarios—and more advice, head to her blog on deckerpoole.com.
Image courtesy of iStock.