WJXT News4Jax: One of the biggest stressors of divorce is co-parenting. During this time of school closings, working from home and anxiety in our country, it is essential for parents to work together to help children know there is a united front looking out for them.
It can be really hard to co-parent at times like this. Family law expert Lawrence Datz joined WJXT News4Jax March 26 to discuss how parents can navigate the sometimes-tricky legal issues related to co-parenting during times of social-distancing and self-isolation.
Datz has spent decades practicing family law, divorce law and criminal law. He is the founder of the Datz & Datz law firm, which focuses primarily on family law including divorce law. He is Board Certified in Marital and Family Law and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers as well as a Master in the Florida Family Law Inn of Court.
Q: Are you and other family lawyers getting calls from parents worried about returning children to co-parents who are not willing to practice social distancing?
- We are getting some calls with general questions about what the parent might or might not do, a few with actual crises, and undoubtedly more to come. Some parents with timesharing agreements, usually in the form of a court order, think of opportunities to keep their child away from the other parent, even sometimes in violation of a shared-custody agreement.
- This is uncharted legal territory. The federal government, many states and even municipal governments around the country have declared states of emergency.
- With many family courts closed, divorced or separated parents essentially have to make up arrangements as they go along.
Q: Are emergencies like the COVID-19 crisis covered under most co-parenting agreements?
- As with most everything else related to COVID-19, no one has specific experience, much less a provision about it in a final judgment. However, almost all divorced parents have what is called “shared parental responsibility,” which requires them to consult with each other about important decisions affecting their child.
- They should try to work together – however difficult that may be – to provide for what’s in the best interests of their children, to do their best to keep the child and themselves healthy, and to preserve a sense of fairness and equity, both emotionally and legally, however custody is shared.
Q: That sounds like it might be easier said than done, even during normal times. What advice do you offer divorced parents trying to work together on these issues?
- Parents should try to be a team in this situation, even if it’s difficult. This is not the time to keep a detailed accounting of how many overnights the other parent has had or to argue that the current school closures should be treated like summer vacation. Avoid gamesmanship.
- Talk through concerns and be open to new arrangements. Reassure the other parent that any current reduction in their parenting time will be made up – eventually – and that in the meantime, they will have increased phone calls, video chats and other forms of non-physical contact.
- I recommend parents keep written records -- including contacting the other parent by text or email – of their concerns about custody plans. It helps to encourage the other parent’s thoughts and suggestions on proposed solutions.
- Any coronavirus custody arrangement should accommodate the concerns and interests of both parents but, most importantly, consider the child’s physical and emotional wellbeing Remember, we as parents are constantly teaching our children. Under these circumstances we should want to teach them good behavior in difficult circumstances.
Q: What are some other good practices divorced parents can employ?
- There are simple, common-sense things that divorced parents should consider to help things go smoothly during this period. Here are a few recommendations from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in conjunction with the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts that I think are important for any parents dealing with these issues:
- BE HEALTHY - Comply with all CDC, local and state guidelines while modeling good behavior for your children with intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing. This also means BE INFORMED. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media.
- BE MINDFUL - Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Don’t leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate.
- BE COMPLIANT - with court orders and custody agreements. As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions, there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.
- BE CREATIVE - At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums, and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.
- BE TRANSPARENT - Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. Certainly, both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.
- BE GENEROUS - Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible. 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.
- BE UNDERSTANDING - There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.