Here’s how divorce lawyers and separated parents are handling social distancing, custody arrangements, and child support during the COVID-19 crisis.
03/27/2020 07:27 pm EDT
Co-parenting is full of challenges under normal circumstances. Trying to maintain a healthy parenting dynamic with your ex during a global pandemic is doubly hard.
Stephanie Sinclair knows that firsthand. The writer, who lives in a suburb near Phoenix, has two kids, ages 12 and 9, with her ex. When things first started getting bad with coronavirus in early March, she and her ex had wholly different ideas about “social distancing.”
“Getting him to take it seriously was difficult,” she said. “He thought it was blown out of proportion and had even taken the kids to a really crowded park. And he was still taking them to group religious services even after both the CDC and the U.S. government recommended social distancing.”
Luckily, the church has since moved all services online. Sinclair, who has joint custody of the kids (they alternate weeks and swap on Monday) is taking co-parenting day by day.
“Thankfully, we both work in tech, so we have been able to work from home and be home with them during this time,” she said. “Right now, I think doing your best is the best you can do. If you have a co-parent who isn’t being as vigilant as you, it can be frustrating. But I’ve just tried to do my part and gently educate my kids.”
Sinclair has the right mentality, said Randall Kessler, a divorce lawyer in Atlanta and the author of “Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids And Your Future.”
“Right now, you should be bending over backward to be accommodating and understanding,” he told HuffPost. “We are already seeing interference with parenting time: Often the parent in control, the custodial parent, doesn’t trust the other parent to protect the children, so they don’t allow visits.”
And currently, none of this can be litigated: The courts are closed, Kessler said.
“That’s why I go back to my earlier statement,” he said. “Behave well, for you may be judged down the road on how you handled this.”
“Behave well” was the overarching advice from divorce attorneys we interviewed, but if you’re a co-parent, you probably still have a lot of questions: Do existing custody agreements have to be followed to a T (even if your ex thinks they have symptoms of COVID-19)? How should you handle child support if one of you is laid off? Should you get any changes in writing?
Below, legal experts (and co-parents themselves) share a few tips on how to co-parent during this global health crisis.
This is uncharted territory for parents and the legal community, said Alison L. Patton, a family law attorney, and mediator in San Diego. Routines have been blown apart almost overnight. Kids’ classrooms are at home. Some parents are out of work, others are working from home, and those in fields like health care and other essential services are facing long, unpredictable hours. With all this upheaval, it’s extra important to play nice with your ex, Patton said.
“Unless you’re dealing with a high-conflict ex who needs clear boundaries and rules, the name of the game during the COVID-19 pandemic is flexibility and working together for the sake of the children and your own sanity,” Patton said.
Now is not the time to argue about the small stuff or rehash old conflicts.
“Most kids are already feeling unsettled and anxious,” she said. “Having their parents problem-solve and be a united team will make all the difference in how they fare during this crisis.”
Be willing to modify child support in the event of a job loss.
Erin Levine, the founder of Hello Divorce, a legal assistance site, said that right now many parents are making modifications to child support because of widespread job loss. If that’s something you need to do, get any agreement you come to on your own with your ex in writing. If you can’t agree, Levin said to consider filing a motion with the court to preserve the right to modify the amount of support you’re paying back to the date your income took a hit.
If you need to have this conversation with your ex, approach it with as much compassion as you can.
“My biggest piece of advice is to be honest, and be especially thoughtful about tone when having difficult discussions with your ex,” Levine said. “We’re all struggling. We’re all trying to do the best we can right now. The more transparent and empathetic you can be right now, the better for everyone.”
Think twice — or three times — before you send that angry text.
Maybe don’t send that angry text about the trip your ex took right before things got bad in your state, Kessler said.
“Think about how you say things, how they will be received, how they will be preserved for future litigation,” he said. “No matter how right you are, the other person is also suffering. We all are. Fear of the unknown causes stress, and now is the time when the person you chose to have a child with could use your help and reassurance.”
Be understanding of your ex’s schedule.
During the school year, English teacher Katie Mitchell’s two kids, ages 7 and 10, usually live with her and go to their dad’s every other weekend. Since coronavirus hit, they’ve changed things around a bit: The parents have kept the every-other-weekend rotation, but they’re splitting weekdays in half down the middle right now.
“This gives me Thursday and Friday to catch up on work which is really necessary,” said Mitchell, who lives in northern Georgia. “That flexibility has been key: It’s hard to work at home and also supervise their home studies right now. With this agreement, both parents get a couple of child-free days to catch up on work, and the kids are not away from either parent for a long time.”