If you are currently divorced or separated and trying to figure out how to continue custody sharing of your children during these scary and uncertain times, rest assured that you are not alone. Parents everywhere are faced with the unprecedented challenge of providing for, educating and entertaining their children at home full-time, maintaining their households, and staying healthy. With no clear end in sight, it is truly a unique and difficult time for many families.
In a recent document published by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), notable attorneys and industry experts have created a set of guidelines to help divorced and separated parents navigate their “new normal.” You can read the document in full here, but we have summarized the key points as a resource for you below. We also encourage you to leverage Marple Rubin Family Law as your go-to resource for child custody information. As always, we are here to support you and your family as you make difficult decisions and considerations during this time.
1. Make your family’s health your #1 priority
Make every effort to comply with all CDC, local and state guidelines. It’s important that you serve as an example and model good behavior for your children by practicing intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing.
This also requires you to stay informed. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media. Don’t believe everything you read, and make sure you fact check.
2. Be mindful of what you say…and what they hear
When you are talking to or in front of your kids, be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a sense of controlled calmness. Be sure to communicate your belief that this is temporary, and everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. 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.
Common Sense Media, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and families, offer some fantastic free resources for parents who need advice on how to best communicate with their children. You can explore everything they offer, here.
3. Stay compliant with Court Orders and Custody Agreements
Custody agreements and court orders exist to prevent endless negotiating or arguing over the detailed minutiae of time sharing. 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. Speak with your attorney directly if you have questions or are unclear on what these national changes mean for your existing agreements.
4. Be flexible and get creative
On the other hand, it would be unrealistic to expect zero change during a time when airline travel is coming to halt, vacation attractions are closing, and sporting events are being cancelled all over the US and the world. Some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis, and other parents may be out of work or temporarily working reduced hours. Plans will inevitably have to change and will require a lot of flexibility from one or both parents. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games, and video conferencing (e.g., FaceTime,Skype, or Zoom).
5. Over-communicate and be transparent
Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try your hardest to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. As we mentioned above, your health and your family’s health should be your first priority. Also, both parents should be informed at once if your child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus. As recent news reports have shown, children are not immune to the serious effects of the virus.
6. Be overly-generous with time
Try to be flexible with rescheduling an appropriate amount of time to the parent who is having to miss out, if at all possible. Not only is it the right thing to do, but family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made, and most likely will take concerns raised in later filings seriously about parents who are inflexible in these highly unusual circumstances.
7. Be as understanding as possible
There is no doubt that this pandemic will pose economic hardships and lead to lost paychecks or opportunity for 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 as accommodating as possible under these challenging and temporary circumstances.
At the end of the day, it has never been more important that we serve as examples for our children and practice empathy, understanding, and compassion to everyone during this unprecedented time, including your co-parent. Every child deserves to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep their child safe. We are all in this together and we will get through it together.
8. Follow the parenting plan
While the ideal situation would be for both parents to go with the flow and only reference the Parenting Plan as a last resort, this is not the case for most parents. Nothing causes a dispute like someone breaking the obligations in the Parenting Plan. Remember, this is an Order of the Court that must be followed, otherwise you will most likely be held in contempt of Court. In most cases, a Parenting Plan will try to balance things out to the extent reasonably feasible in terms of parenting time. For example, it may be upsetting that you do not have the children this year for Thanksgiving. However, you most likely have them for Christmas this year and will have them next year for Thanksgiving. Try to keep things in perspective instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the Parenting Plan. If there are provisions of your Parenting Plan that absolutely do not work, you need to contact an attorney to assist you in a potential custody or visitation modification action.
9. Use a digital co-parenting tool
Family law attorneys recommend that parents with a contentious history communicate solely through a digital co-parenting tool, such as Our Family Wizard (OFW). In addition to email correspondence, including a way to confirm when the other parent opened the message and a “tone-meter” to help reduce the vitriol between parties, these tools can also be used for a shared parenting calendar and to keep track of additional support obligations like uncovered medical expenses or other out-of-pocket child expenses that are part of your specific arrangement. OFW provides many tools to engage with a contentious co-parent, while also maintaining a record of important information for future use. If you have to go back to court, then you can share access with your attorney so he or she can mine the information for evidence.
10. Keep the children out of it
Do not discuss co-parenting issues with your children. Do not disparage your ex in front of the children. Do not discuss finances or send checks with the children. It does not matter the child’s age or whether the words are true, this behavior encourages a child to resist the other parent and has proven to be toxic to their future relationships. Additionally, research has also shown that some children ended up blaming the divorce on the parent who denigrated the other parent rather than blaming the parent who was the target of the criticism.
11. Engage a parenting coordinator or co-parenting counselor
When disagreements abound, a licensed counselor can provide an appropriate intermediary through parent coordination or co-parent counseling. Parent coordinators generally work with both parents in resolving their disputes. In some cases, they can act as an arbitrator. In co-parenting counseling sessions, a counselor can offer communication techniques and will work with you to reduce
residual anger stemming from the prior relationship. Seeing a counselor, either individually or together, is a great way to reduce stress and, therefore, improve your ability to co-parent effectively.
If you would like to discuss your current Parenting Plan or any co-parenting issues directly with the attorneys at Marple Rubin Family Law, please contact us at 770-796-4000 or visit our website at marplerubin.com to schedule a consultation.
Do you have a co-parenting tip to contribute? We are continuously adding to this post throughout the COVID-19 season. Please email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.