Co-Parenting and Coronavirus: What You Need to Know

Dad picking up his daughter with a suitcase

Parenting in two different households is challenging  under the best of circumstances. But when a pandemic is sweeping the globe, and people are being urged to stay home, social distance, and shelter in place, the challenges increase.

What does it mean to “stay at home” when a child has two homes? What if one parent has a job as an essential worker that exposes him or her to possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection? How do you manage parenting time when parents live far apart, and traveling with your child risks exposing them, or you, to infection with COVID-19?

What if you and your co-parent have radically different views on what action is needed to keep your child or household safe? What do you do when one or both parents is out of work, or struggling to work from home and still care for a child? What happens if a parent with primary residential responsibility deems parenting time is too dangerous, and refuses to allow the other parent scheduled visitation?

Concern about physical health and financial well-being means tensions are even higher than they are under normal circumstances. That means discussions about residential responsibility and parenting time are likely to be fraught with emotion, and you and your co-parent may struggle to reach resolution.

What is in the Best Interests of the Child?

Custody and parenting time decisions are made based on “the best interests of the child.” Once a custody order is in place, there are additional requirements for changing that order.

This reality comes up against another new reality: we are living in uncertain, unprecedented times, in which small decisions can have life-changing consequences. Parents may feel torn between following their custody and parenting time order, and potentially putting their child at risk for contracting COVID-19, or keeping their child safe at home, and risking sanctions for violating the custody and parenting time order. 

In an ideal world, co-parents would be able to reach an agreement about how to handle parenting time during this crisis. If at all possible, simply talking with each other is the best place to start. Discuss your concerns.  Explain them. Share information.  For example, where has each parent been in the last two weeks? Has there been any out of state travel? Who has each of the parents come into contact with?

There may be an answer that will meet the needs of your child as well as both parents. For example, it might make sense to have less-frequent switches between residences, with your child spending a longer period with each of you, and having regular contact with the other parent by FaceTime or Skype. It could mean some type of “compensatory” parenting time later on where the parenting time that is missed now is made up at a later date. 

If you and your co-parent are able to reach agreement for a temporary change in how you handle parenting time, that’s great. Be sure to discuss it with your family law attorney to make sure there are no unintended consequences, and to have the agreement put in writing.

If you are unable to reach agreement with your co-parent about how your child will spend time with you both during quarantine or shelter-in-place orders, things get more complicated. Here’s one thing you shouldn’t do unless you are prepared to face possible sanctions by the Court, including and up to a modification of residential responsibility: make a one-sided decision to change parenting time.

If you genuinely believe that your child is at risk if parenting time continues as scheduled, contact your family law attorney to discuss options for seeking a temporary ex parte modification of parenting time.

The North Dakota courts are currently under some of the same restrictions and are not currently holding in-person hearings except for in limited types of cases.  Cases, trials, hearings ,and scheduled dates for all types of cases are being delayed until June and July 2020.  While you may be able to request expedited consideration of a motion or request that it be heard on an ex parte (emergency) basis,  a formal, long term modification of custody or parenting time will face unavoidable delays due to hearing requirements.

There is also a third option for parents: expedited mediation.

Expedited Parenting Time Mediation in North Dakota

If you have a Judgment in place in North Dakota with an established parenting time plan and schedule, or an interim order regarding parenting time, you are eligible for the expedited parenting time mediation program. Established to address the kinds of concerns discussed above, the program provides two hours of telephone mediation to resolve parenting time disputes.

There is no cost for the expedited parenting time mediation, and if you wish, your attorneys can be on the call as well.  You must file a request to participate, and, obviously, your co-parent must be willing to participate too. Once your request is filed, the administrator of the program will assign a mediator. You will be given a number of possible mediation dates and times from which to select.

With the help of the neutral mediator, you and your co-parent may  be able to more quickly, efficiently, and cost effectively reach an agreement about parenting time during the coronavirus crisis. Keep in mind that the mediator is not a judge and cannot order you to do anything, but he or she may help you identify mutually acceptable options you might not have thought of on your own. If you come to a resolution, the mediator will create a written summary of your agreement for you both to sign.

If you have questions about co-parenting, custody, parenting time, or other family-law related matters during the time of coronavirus, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a remote consultation.