By knowing your rights, options, and available next steps during this time of uncertainty, you will be prepared now, and in the future.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated your co-parenting plan, you’re not alone. Nobody had an international health crisis penciled in their calendar for 2020, and the decisions you are making now in response to the pandemic may vary from the choices of your parenting partner. Regardless of what’s happening in the world, you want your child to be happy, healthy, and safe. Below, you will find a list of legalities you should know to help ensure your child’s best interests as you navigate co-parenting in the wake of COVID-19.
Parenting Agreements. First things first: there are over 13 million custodial single parents in the U.S., and about half of them have parenting agreements in place. Of those parenting agreements, the vast majority are formally established in court. Most outline which parent is responsible for decisions when it comes to a child’s health, education, and other important aspects of their life. However, if your agreement does not provide clarity on which parent gets the ultimate decision, it’s best to follow your local government’s recommendations and mandates.
If your parenting partner breaks the initial agreement during the pandemic, they may avoid immediate repercussions, but it can have a major impact on the outcome of their future co-parenting privileges. Consequences include being held in contempt of court or having a motion submitted to modify the custody agreement.
School Attendance Decisions. Some schools have decided to transition to a fully virtual format; others are testing the effectiveness of a hybrid model; while others have decided to allow in-person education to resume. No matter how your child’s school has decided to return, it’s vital that you and your co-parent are on the same page. If you and your parenting partner have varying opinions on whether it’s safe to go back, always resort back to your parenting agreement. Your parenting agreement will outline which parent has the legal right to make decisions about your child’s education. Once you know what “back to school” looks like for your family, there are a few things both you and your co-parent should know and decide upon moving forward:
- If you choose the virtual or hybrid model and have shared custody, both parents must have an adequate Wi-Fi connection and sufficient technology for the child to succeed.
- Virtual learning may require more communication with your child’s teacher. Decide if both parents will communicate separately, or if one will communicate on behalf of you both.
- Ensure both parents have access to school records such as medical records, grades, behavior reports, etc.
Other considerations, like the amount of allotted space at each parent’s home for schoolwork and if one household has an at-risk member, may help make the decision easier. Ultimately, you must do what’s best for your child and your respective families, and it’s perfectly normal for that to look different from other families.
Temporary Custody. While COVID-19 has resulted in an abundance of change, you are still expected to follow your custody agreement. If you and your co-parent cannot come to an agreement regarding how to keep your child safe during the pandemic, it may be time to consider a temporary custody request or a temporary restraining order (TRO). When the court decides on a TRO, they ultimately must decide what is in the best interest of the child.
Filing for a TRO is a major decision with serious potential implications. You should be aware that it is very difficult to prove that your child is at an immediate and irreparable risk during COVID-19. In fact, many courts across the country have announced that the virus is not reason enough to separate parents from their children, and multi-house families should proceed to follow their parenting agreement as if things were normal. If you file a TRO and are unable to provide proof that your child is at risk, consequences include makeup parenting time, a court-appointed guardian, and more. You should consult with a local lawyer who specializes in family law to assess your specific situation.
Family Access Motions. If your co-parent is not respecting your parenting agreement, you may be able to file a family access motion. You do not need a lawyer in order to file a family access motion – in fact, forms to file are usually available on your local court’s website. You should keep track of exact dates and times your co-parent violated your parenting agreement, as this will help your case. According to the Missouri Bar, in order to succeed in a family access motion, you’ll need these details, as well as proof that your co-parent denied visitation without good cause. Potential outcomes include makeup parenting time, counseling for your co-parent, a fine for your co-parent, and more.
Nobody could have prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, but now that it has happened, more courts will prepare for similar future events. Provisions will be added to future parenting agreements outlining what will happen in the event of another major pandemic. Things like schools shutting down, mandated quarantines, and what to do when parents live in separate states will all be considered.
This past year has been stressful, especially for multi-house families. There’s no one way to navigate this pandemic, and with varying (and sometimes contradictory) information coming to you from all angles, making the right decision for your family is harder than ever before. By knowing your rights, options, and available next steps during this time of uncertainty, you will be prepared now, and in the future.