By Leah Warner

We are facing unprecedented times.  The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives and has created many changes for parents and children.  Distance learning has been extended through the rest of the school year, child care facilities have adopted new policies or closed their doors, some parents are working at their employers’ job sites and others are working from home, and social distancing continues to be encouraged by the CDC.

Divorced and separated parents face some unique challenges as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.  A parent in one household might be out going to work, while the parent in the other household is working from home.  Grandparents may have provided child care for one or both of the parents, but that option may no longer be viable as they could be in a high risk category.  As restrictions are being lifted, parents may have different ideas about the need for social distancing or how and when it should be implemented.

So, how do you effectively co-parent during this pandemic?  Although circumstances may vary among divorced and separated parents, the common theme is that parents should put their children’s physical and emotional safety and development at the forefront.  The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers issued SEVEN GUIDELINES FOR PARENTS WHO ARE DIVORCED/SEPARATED AND SHARING CUSTODY OF CHILDREN DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC:

  1. BE HEALTHY. Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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. 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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.

In the event parents are unable to resolve the questions or problems they may face due to the pandemic, there are dispute resolution options available to parents.  Some courts may not be scheduling hearings, and if they are, hearings may be delayed due to court closures.  Before proceeding to the court, parties are encouraged to try a form of alternative dispute resolution if problems arise.  Mediators are available to assist parties resolve conflicts in an expeditious and more amicable manner.  North Dakota has expanded their family law mediation program to assist parties during this time.  Minnesota families can also hire a mediator to resolve disputes.  Parties may also agree to appoint a parenting coordinator or parenting time expeditor to interpret the court order and make a binding decision.  One of the key concerns in all co-parenting situations is to prevent or minimize conflict to which children are exposed.  Several options are available for parents to solve co-parenting issues that may arise during this time.

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