Co-parenting is never easy, but toss in an unexpected virus that experts are still trying to understand and the sudden closure of schools, daycares, and places of employment, and the pressure suddenly goes way up. It’s understandable why, for many families, these new and quickly-changing complications can make co-parenting frustrating and contentious, even in arrangements that were amicable as recently as last month.
As of the writing of this article, current statewide stay-at-home orders allow for the transfer of kids between parents’ homes—but in reality, it often isn’t so simple. What if your ex lives in an area that’s considered a hotbed for the virus, or works in a high-risk occupation? What if their practice of “social distancing” is significantly different from yours? With limited access to the courts and legal counsel in places where offices have temporarily shut down, many parents are concerned and confused about what to do. We combed the available research and corralled the advice of some of the nation’s top experts to help you navigate co-parenting during this uncertain time. Here a few guidelines to help you find your way.
Stick to the plan as much as possible.
One of the most important things divorced parents can do right now is stick to the custody arrangement to the best of their ability, according to guidelines recently set by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). Formal arrangements are there to prevent endless haggling even in the best of circumstances, and who needs endless back and forth at a time like this? In some jurisdictions, there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school was still in session. So, do what you can to keep disruptions to a minimum, however….
As important as it is to honor the set plan as much as possible, these are strange circumstances—an emergency situation, in fact, given that it’s a bonafide pandemic—and a certain level of flexibility is required on the part of each parent. In fact, per the AAML/AFCC guidelines, “Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.” If it’s easier for one of you to work from home or one household is presumed to have less exposure to the virus, for example, it may be worth amending the arrangement until the crisis is over.
So, what should you do if you stray from the usual custody arrangement? Stephanie Stecklair, a family law attorney with the firm Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg, advises parents to keep records of any changes to their regular schedule in writing, even if that’s simply saved emails or texts.
If being flexible means you’re spending less time with your children, try not to worry. The most important thing is that the kids are safe and well taken care of and each parent is able to work if they need to. Remember, you can always make up any missed time later. One Massachusetts dad explained that his state put its stay at home order in place when his sons were with their mother, so he had to be flexible and they’re staying with her for a bit longer than planned. “On the flip side, we’re going to have them for a looooong stretch of time when this finally blows over,” he told us on Facebook.
Swap real face time for virtual face time.
If one or both of you can’t be with the kids, make a commitment to carving out lots of virtual time, so that everyone can feel connected. Set a recurring time, or come to an agreement that there’s no set schedule and you and the kids can each reach out whenever you want. However you decide to go about it, knowing each of you will be able to connect with your children will go a long way to making them—and you—feel better about things. You can use FaceTime, Zoom or Google Hangouts to read bedtime stories, play games, watch a movie together, or just check in.
Come up with a plan in case one, or both, of you gets the virus.
It’s an uncomfortable reality to face, but there’s a possibility that at least one of you could contract COVID-19. Should the kids automatically go to the parent who’s not sick? What if that parent is exposed or falls ill themselves? Who should the kids stay with then and what will their routines look like? Discussing a plan ahead of time will prevent greater stress later, when you’ll already have more than enough to worry about. And although it should go without saying, the AAML and AFCC guidelines point out that you should establish early on that you’ll both be completely transparent with each other about any symptoms or potential exposure to the virus experienced by either party.
When you just can’t agree…
In a time when there’s reduced access to family courts—and no real precedent for families dealing with these circumstances before—parents report having limited recourse when they strongly disagree about custody questions during the pandemic. This makes mature, open, and honest communication between parents even more important than ever, so they can come to a mutual understanding about the new temporary arrangements.
If you’re concerned about negotiating something so sensitive with your ex, or you simply aren’t on great terms, Long Okura, a Utah family law attorney, suggests working with a mediator who uses digital platforms that don’t require anyone to come in physical contact with others. You can find a directory of online mediators here, or search the web for mediators in your state. “Many family court mediators remain available to help couples work out pandemic related custody issues,” Marcia Zug, Professor of Family Law at the University of South Carolina, reassures parents. “Mediated agreements – even attempts at agreements – provide a contemporary and largely objective record of the parents’ thoughts, circumstances and concerns. That record may help judges sort out who was being reasonable and accommodating in seeking custody changes, and who was not.”