California Child Custody During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Child custody cases are stressful to begin with. With the current Coronavirus Pandemic, the state’s shelter in place directive, and the closure of schools and childcare centers, parents are experiencing added stress and uncertainty. Many parents may have questions as to how to proceed under these circumstances.
Below are some common questions and their answers:
- Should we still comply with the custody orders and schedule? The general answer is yes. But you must embrace flexibility and common sense. As with any decision regarding your children, put their best interests first. For example, if your custody orders require exchanges at school or a public place, parents can mutually agree to have the exchanges curbside. But if parents live far from each other and exchanges require travel by air or long distance driving, perhaps you can modify your custody arrangement to either not have the exchanges now and make up the time later, do video chats or extend the visits and lessen the exchanges. With children not having to physically go to school, this is more manageable.
- What if you are concerned about the risk of exposure at the other parent’s home or you don’t think the other parent is taking social distancing seriously? If, for example, the other parent is a healthcare worker, or works in stores where they are exposed to many people, you can have a conversation with the other parent and agree to pause visitations in order to minimize the risk of exposure to the children. Again, common sense approach and flexibility is key here. You should not, however weaponize the COVID-19 Pandemic against the other parent. Taking advantage of this situation to keep the children away from the other parent will not be looked at kindly by the court after the Pandemic is over. As for whether the other parent is taking social distancing seriously, you have to understand that there will always be variables you cannot control when the children are with the other parent. Discussing the rules in each household with the other parent is helpful. If, however, you strongly feel that the other parent is simply not taking this situation seriously, you should document the discussion and your expectations clearly, but you should still not violate court ordered custody schedules, unless the risks are too much considering your child’s health vulnerability.
- What if you reach a temporary agreement with the other parent to change the custodial timeshare? If you are able to reach an agreement, make sure to put it in writing.
- What if we can’t reach an agreement and we need the court to decide? At the moment, most courts in California are not operating at full capacity. For example, Los Angeles Superior Court is closed to the public until at least April 16, 2020. Only essential and time-sensitive matters will be heard. This does include ex-parte hearings concerning the health and safety of children and restraining orders. However, the inability to reach a temporary custody or visitation schedule will not be an essential hearing, unless the health and safety of the child is truly in jeopardy. As such, parties are advised to try to work it out. Of course, having an experienced family law attorney will help in this situation.
In these difficult times, parties should consider the upside. With children not having school, parties can use this time to accommodate each other and spend more time with the children. For example, if one parent is still working outside of the home, while the other is working from home, the children can spend the days with the parent working from home and more evenings and weekends with the parent working outside the home. That way, the parents each have plenty of time with the children. Being flexible and creative with the schedule while putting the children’s best interest first, will help everyone navigate through this crisis better.