Temporary changes vs. permanent changes
With the outbreak of the Coronavirus life has changed. Some changes are temporary and some may be permanent. Almost every American’s travel plans have been affected by limitations placed on travel, shopping, and many other aspects of our lives. In addition to all of life’s other complications, many of us share custody of children. I have been practicing in the area of family law in North Florida for over 17 years. A thorough parenting plan will account for numerous contingencies. To date, I have yet to see a parenting plan that addresses custodial complications parents are likely to experience during the current pandemic. I find that the two most litigated issues in family law are: (1) issues involving money and, (2) child custody (also known as timesharing), not necessarily in that order. In Florida, timesharing arrangements affect child support, so parents need to be sure that their thought process regarding timesharing is motivated solely based on the child’s best interests.
Does a greater risk of exposure threaten a parent’s contact with the children?
Present parenting plans are not invalidated by our current state of affairs and changes that we must make to our routine. When parenting plans are ambiguous or otherwise do not provide guidance uncertainty is created. For instance, what should a parent do if the other parent has been exposed to the Coronavirus, but does not test positive for the virus? It is doubtful that any parenting plan would be fully instructive in guiding one whether to turn that child over to the exposed parent. Another practical consideration should be understanding that there may be delays in obtaining a court hearing now that the court system has been slowed by delays and backups caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic. Although it is believed by some health professionals that the virus affects children less severely than it does adults, some experts suggest that children with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, heart problems, or a compromised immune system should still be considered high risk. One can speak with a child’s pediatrician regarding the child’s medical status and how to reduce the risk of exposure to the Coronavirus, but he or she cannot provide the legal advice needed to decide how to deal with timesharing issues.
What options does a parent have?
The best option for a parent faced with a timesharing dilemma over the Coronavirus is to work with the other parent to find the best solution to deal with risks to the child. Unfortunately, former spouses do not always get along well enough to co-parent effectively. This is where a difficult legal question comes into play when a parent believes that his or her child’s best interests are served by not sending the child to timeshare with the other parent. Under most circumstances, judges frown upon a parent unilaterally withholding a child. The law is far from settled on this issue and due to the variety of circumstances that could be encountered, at best, there will be cases providing attorneys with guidance to help their clients. One excellent example of this quandary is the case of an emergency room doctor in Miami, Florida who temporarily lost custody of her child when a judge granted an emergency motion filed by the father who was concerned about the risk to the child posed by the Mother’s work at the hospital. Dr. Theresa Green has stated that she is now filing an appeal of that order. Someone in Dr. Green’s situation would likely be facing an onslaught of legal bills, as appeals can be quite expensive. On another note, even an expedited appeal might take an extended period of time to decide and, therefore, Dr. Green’s remedy if she “wins” may still be inadequate since she was still separated from her child. If large numbers of parents rush to judges with emergencies, we must ask if the backlog of cases with emergencies will create another problem in itself.
Do some parents have to choose between professional obligations and child contact?
A recently published article entitled “Pandemic complicates custody for 8 million children of divorce” which confronts potential emergencies that parents feel exist based on the other [parent’s activities that may expose them to the coronavirus. Banjo, Shelly. “Pandemic complicates custody for 8 million children of divorce.” 2020, April 9, Pandemic complicates custody for 8 million children of divorce, Shawnee-News Star, https://www.news-star.com/news/20200409/pandemic-complicates-custody-for-8-million-children-of-divorce?utm_source=Justia%20Blogging%20Ideas&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=40841d4e9f-blogging_ideas_family_20200415&utm_term=0_dba88020e6-40841d4e9f-406243945.
From a practical standpoint, rushing to court to deal with such a problem may be impractical for a variety of reasons starting with costs and ending with potential delays in getting before a judge in a timely manner. The article regarding the 8 million children of divorce speaks of one New York court that found that a mother who was having dinner parties that the father thought might result in the children being exposed to the Coronavirus would not depart from the timesharing schedule. The judge was quoted as indicating that he would be deciding the case after the virus issue is over and he would be strongly considering which parent made efforts to provide the other parent with contact to the children.
Is litigation cost effective and practical?
In my view, relying on the Court system to resolve acute issues with timesharing related to the Coronavirus should be a last alternative after attempting to find a practical and measured response to the threat. The most immediate and effective way to take action to protect children from the virus is to work with the other parent, if possible. If one cannot agree with the other parent, the parties might find voluntarily agreeing to mediation helpful, more efficient and economical than returning to court. Going to court is fraught with uncertainty, as the caselaw is just taking shape concerning this issue and is unsettled presently. If one must seek a legal remedy, it would be advisable to consult with an experienced family law attorney. He or she should be able to review recent decisions that affect your case.
This article was written by Neil L. Weinreb, Esquire. Mr. Weinreb is an experienced child custody attorney who has been practicing family law in North Florida for 17 years. He has enjoyed teaching law as an adjunct professor previously and he has also hosted his own legal radio show on the internet. Mr. Weinreb works for the Law Offices of David M. Goldman. Take advantage of a free initial consultation today.