COVID-19 and Co-Parenting during a Pandemic: Parenting Plans and Travel Restrictions

Co-Parenting after a divorce or breakup can be difficult at the best of times, and a pandemic is not the best of times. Many parents are struggling right now to balance social distance guidelines, potential financial concerns, distance learning and no daycare, looking for answers, at the same that that each parent is trying to coordinate with the other parent. Your general judgment or parenting plan didn’t make provisions for the restrictions of a pandemic. Often, the things that parents disagree about feel like life or death issues.

Right about the first week in March, the rules were literally changing by the hour. First there was a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people, then it went to 100 people. Then schools were shut down for 3 weeks, then shut down for the rest of the year, and then distance learning plans were developed. Businesses were shut down, and then a shelter in place order came right at the start of spring break. As each parent tried to make the right decision for the children, those decisions set off alarms in the other parent about the health and safety of her children. In one family, Dad had made previous plans to go out of state to visit grandparents for Spring Break. He made plans on how to get there without having to fly, and made plans to keep any gatherings to family only. He had a good plan but then the day before he was to leave, talk of a shelter in place order turned into a reality for the following Monday. And all plans were off. The difficulty was that Mom was absolutely panicked about the idea of her children not being safe and protected and staying put, and felt that for Dad to even consider going was putting her children’s lives in danger. My advice was that if there was going to be a shelter in place order, Dad shouldn’t leave because he would then have to immediately come back but Mom had to respect that Dad would make appropriate decisions for their children, even if it was different than what she would have done.

How does the pandemic affect your parenting plan?

  1. Unless there is an immediate danger to the child, the parenting plan as set out in the judgment needs to continue. Children benefit from consistency and normal access to both parents, especially as everything other thing in their lives is upended, from no school to no playgrounds open to not being able to play with friends.
  2. School being out does not translate into additional parenting time. Many parents were trying to interpret no school as meaning that Spring Break was now for 5 weeks, or that the provision that if there was no school on a Monday or Friday meant that their weekend parenting time was now expanded by 2 days because the judgment made those provisions. All courts have made provisions that parenting time is to continue as if school is in session. This is not a time to make a grab to expand your parenting time at the expense of the other parent. It’s not good for your child, and there are advisory standards in place that the judges are not to consider those are reasonable interpretations of existing plans. If you refuse to return the child, an enforcement of parenting time is one of the few court hearings that can occur right now.
  3. Travel restrictions do not apply to normal exchange of parenting time. The travel restrictions now in place state that travel is allowed under certain circumstances, including the need to provide care for family members and travel as directed by courts are both considered to be essential travel. That may be a mile away or a state away, depending on the circumstances.

What constitutes immediate danger?

Courts are still open for limited purposes, including motions for orders for immediate danger. There are standards set out in the statute as to what constitutes immediate danger. The same analysis applies in time of pandemic. The child has to be in danger of immediate, physical harm. This does not mean that you don’t like that the other parent doesn’t wear a mask when he goes to Home Depot, or she is not disinfecting all of the groceries that come into the house. Immediate danger would be something like if the other parent tested positive for COVID-19 and still wanted to have the child come to the residence for normal parenting time.

If you have questions about how COVID-19 affects your parenting time, or if you are being denied parenting time, please give us a call, and consult with one of our attorneys.