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Do I have to send my children for parenting time during a COVID-19?

One of the most common questions we are currently receiving here at Arndt & Sutak, LLC is whether our clients need to send their children for parenting time with the child's other parent in light of the concerns of exposure to Covid 19. There is no clear-cut answer to the thorny question of what to do about visitation with the children during this unforeseeable situation. Frankly, the only consensus family law attorneys have received from the Court is that determinations should be made on a case by case basis and are extremely fact specific.

The first thing we recommend is to attempt to negotiate a temporary new schedule regarding visitation. For instance, you could offer to wear a mask when you pick up the children and while they are in your care so you don’t pass along anything you may have picked up even if you have no symptoms. If you are unable to work out a new temporary arrangement, we can ask for help from the court.

Judges in New Jersey need to consider first if the dispute rises to the level of an emergent application and then determine what parenting time arrangement is in the best interests of the children as mandated by New Jersey custody laws. Because of the rapid spread and extremely contagious nature of this coronavirus, the Court's inquiry will also need to include consideration of any possible medical ramifications that could affect the children from being in the other party's care, even if just for a weekend. Importantly, if one parent, whether custodial or not, has risk of exposure and infection because of the nature of their employment, the other parent has a right to ask the family court to modify parenting time presuming that the Court determines that this risk is sufficient to be "emergent." However, absent a showing of immediate irreparable harm, the Court is not likely to find these matters emergent.

We have received some additional advice and guidance regarding guidelines for parents who are sharing custody and parenting time of their children during this pandemic from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML). Please review the below guidelines (some of which are reproduced in their complete and original form) in an effort to limit the additional stress placed on our children, at least to the extent possible.

1. BE HEALTHY The AAML recommends that parents comply with all CDC, local and state guidelines with respect to best practices for staying healthy. Encourage children to engage in intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched. Maintain social distancing and stay informed with the most reliable media sources.

We would further recommend that you encourage children to stay active as much as possible, allowing them to take walks or play outside to the extent possible. Encourage socialization via video calling, skype, or facetime with friends and family. Most importantly, if the child’s time with family has been affected, make a concerted effort to have daily phone/video chatting communication with the other parent and family. Our children will remember the steps we make as parents to ensure that this “new normal” continues to foster their love and affection with their families.

2. BE MINDFUL While we want to be clear that this pandemic is serious, it is equally important that we consider the age and maturity of our children when we are conveying things to our children. Maintain a calm attitude and assure your children that you believe that things will return to normal in time. Avoid overexposing your children to endless media coverage and encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns. 

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. BE GENEROUS Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out. 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.

7. 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.

Adversity can become an opportunity for parents to come together and focus on what is best for the child. For many children, the strange days of the pandemic will leave vivid memories. It’s important for every child to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep their child safe.

Call us now to know your rights and protect your family.

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