By mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had changed everything. Governments throughout the nation, especially the hard-hit northeast, scrambled to limit exposure. Those going through a divorce and divorced parents have been confronted with a series of questions during this time. The instinct to protect the children’s health was initiated immediately, such as whether or not to continue sending children to school until jurisdiction ended classroom and organized extracurricular activities. COVID-19 has put immense stress on all families.
Will Child Custody Orders Remain in Effect?
In the middle of the upheaval, terms of child custody agreements remain in effect. Yet, with courtrooms closed, parents have little to no direction on how to honor the specific terms or the intent of the agreement when the pandemic made those terms impractical or questionable. So far, family court emergency hearings are being heard in Pennsylvania and many other trial courts. However, it is not clear what the threshold is for a COVID-19-related issue to be considered an emergency.
It is possible that issues not normally considered an emergency, such as transportation, can rise to the level of an emergency through the lens of a public health crisis. Some custody arrangements involve parent coordinators who may be available to help address issues remotely. For now, breach of most child custody issues will likely have to wait until the courts reopen for normal business.
Will Child Support Orders Remain in Effect?
Child support payments are decided in divorce proceedings and reflect financial conditions at the time of the divorce. It is possible to seek a modification order for child support payments by filing a petition. Many households had their income significantly altered due to the pandemic. Most of these changes involve layoffs and furloughs and impacted workers must apply for unemployment. In Pennsylvania, benefits are available in certain circumstances, including:
- Employers closed temporarily or went out of business
- Workers’ hours have been reduced
- Workers have been advised to stay home
- Workers have been told to quarantine or self-isolate
At this time, federal stimulus laws have created enhanced benefits, including an extension of unemployment compensation insurance by 13 weeks to cover employees who are self-employed or furloughed. The bill also provides workers with an additional $600 per week for the additional four months. This income should count when evaluating the ability to pay and any need for modifications of child support amounts.
Individuals who experienced loss of income that impedes their ability to pay child support should contact an attorney to file a petition for modification. They will need to provide detailed information on the reasons for the petition. While it may be possible to file a petition for modification by mail, these cases will not be decided until the courts reopen. Recipients who are not receiving child support payments in a timely manner or the required amount should contact a divorce attorney to determine if enforcement proceedings are being performed during this time.
Travel Issues During the Pandemic
Most divorced parents live relatively close to each other and are used to shared-custody agreements where children are driven back-and-forth between households. Most jurisdictions have issued guidance allowing children to be driven to and from their parents’ homes, even during stay-at-home orders. Child visitation schedules should be maintained for local travel. If travel is in-state, then it is still likely to be permissible. However, air travel is different. The risk of exposure during air travel could be a justifiable reason to delay travel until the pandemic has subsided. Common sense should dictate decisions about child custody orders in light of the health risks involved.
What If My Ex-Spouse was Exposed to COVID-19?
Some parents work in high-risk professions; particularly those who provide health care services, such as emergency medical technicians, police officers, nurses, nursing home staff, and emergency room doctors. It may be necessary to hold off on allowing child visitation until the crisis subsides. The lack of adequate personal protective equipment and of testing for exposure makes the chance for exposure and possible transmission to family members a very serious concern.
The risk is less, but still present for other essential workers. Postal delivery workers, warehouse staff, and grocery and pharmacy clerks can all be potentially exposed. Serious outbreaks have been seen in meat processing plants and other high-contact work environments. It is fair to say that concerns of this nature could be serious enough to justify holding off on child visitation without risking judicial sanctions later.
There have been various views on how to take proper precautions against the spread of the virus. Some people have decided to disregard the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines by refusing to wear masks in public. If one spouse decided not to take social distancing seriously, then discontinuing child custody until the emergency passes may be justified. A judge would need validation of refusal to social distance to avoid sanctioning the parent who disallowed their child from seeing the other parent.
Responding to Trying Times
The reaction of parents under these trying times will likely leave an imprint on children for years to come. To the greatest extent possible, divorced parents should demonstrate to their children a common commitment to keeping them safe and informed during the pandemic. Now is not the time to be divisive and challenging.
If it is possible to agree to changes amicably, then do so. If not, consider divorce mediation. An impartial third person can consider the facts and offer solutions that are acceptable to both parties. A properly negotiated and crafted mediation agreement can be a good alternative to court-ordered actions. This is especially true now since time may be of the essence and courts are closed.
Parents during this time may be concerned about decisions regarding child custody and support, and whether their children will be understanding about their predicament. Explain to children the seriousness of the crisis. Once the pandemic is over, children will recognize that their parents made sure that they were safe. Any modifications made would be understandable. Children need to be supported during this trying to time. It is still beneficial to contact a lawyer to make child custody and support modifications. Some law offices are open virtually for lawyers to address any concerns.
Bucks County Divorce Lawyers at Freedman & Lorry, P.C. Assist Clients with Child Custody and Support Modifications
If you are divorced and experiencing conflicts with child custody and child support payments, contact one of our experienced Bucks County divorce lawyers at Freedman & Lorry, P.C. We provide compassionate, powerful representation to ensure you and your children are protected to the greatest extent possible. Call us at 888-999-1962 or complete our online formfor a free consultation today. Located in Philadelphia, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Pinehurst, North Carolina, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania.