It can be difficult to co-parent when you are divorced or separated from your co-parent under the best of circumstances. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, co-parenting can be even more complicated due to the health risk COVID-19 poses to the human population, and the new social distancing guidelines issued by Governor Charlie Baker. With the Probate and Family Court closed for all business except emergencies, parents don’t necessarily have the courts to turn to when they can’t resolve a dispute.
However, there are resources and guidelines for parents to resolve any co-parenting disputes during the pandemic.
- Remember common sense
Even though we are in the midst of pandemic, and everyone is a little off kilter from staying home almost all of the time, common sense still exists. Many of the Probate and Family Court judges have said that common sense has not left the Court during this pandemic.
Well, what is that supposed to mean? What this means is that custody and parenting plans from the Court have not been thrown out the window. These court orders are still good and active, and parents should follow these court orders when possible. In fact, the Chief Justice of Probate and Family Court issued an open letter encouraging parenting time continue as scheduled, as long as it is safe and healthy to do so. (https://www.mass.gov/news/open-letter-regarding-co-parenting-during-covid-19-from-chief-justice-john-d-casey) Therefore, parents shouldn’t automatically say that one parent’s parenting time is cancelled during the pandemic.
Similarly, parents should follow the guidance from the CDC, World Health Organization, and the government for who to socialize with, and when and where to go out in public. If a child is considered to be a high health risk due to pre-existing medical conditions, parents may want to consider temporarily modifying the parenting schedule to protect a child’s health.
More simply put, parents should think about how their actions may be viewed by a judge in a contempt or modification hearing down the road, if it came to that. If a parent is being ridiculous and unreasonable, for example denying all contact with the other parent, then that probably isn’t reasonable, and a judge will probably disapprove of this behavior. However, if a parent is trying to be reasonable and follow the guidance that is available to us, a judge is probably going to give some deference for their actions.
- Try to communicate with your co-parent
Although it’s not fun communicating with your ex, during the pandemic, you should try to communicate about the parenting plan and parenting time. You may also want to discuss if you both want to self-quarantine for a period of time, and when and why your children will go out in public. You don’t have to necessarily sit down for a cup of coffee to have this discussion. You can have this discussion by text or email. But, if you talk with your co-parent, you may be able to work out what to do with the parenting plan for the coming weeks. You may even agree to modify the parenting schedule temporarily, so as to minimize your children’s exposure and risk to other people.
- Check online resources
Increasingly, many organizations are coming up with resources, guidelines, and recommendations for divorced and separated parents for co-parenting in the pandemic. Both the American Bar Association and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (also known as AFCC) have issued guidelines and resources such as this. AFCC has been continually updating their resources at https://www.afccnet.org/Coronavirus, which is a source that many family law attorneys, as well as Probate ad Family Court judges, have been reviewing.
- Remember that your children’s best interests come first, not yours
In the Probate and Family Court, the legal standard for anything dealing with custody, parenting time, and the co-parenting plan is “the best interests of the children.” That means each parents best interests and rights as it relates to custody and parenting time come after the best interests of the children.
Thus, even though you or your co-parent may have a court order stating that you are entitled to parenting time during the pandemic, you should consider your children’s interests in exercising that parenting time during the COVID-19 pandemic. If your child has underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, it may be in their best interests to temporarily suspend parenting time. Similarly, if you or your co-parent are not practicing social distancing, or have been exposed to COVID-19, it may be in the children’s best interests to cancel parenting time for now, and schedule make up parenting time in a few weeks or months when it is safe to do so.
Some parents sometimes forget that the focus should be on their children in these circumstances, and less on a parent’s rights to exercise parenting time. If parents can remember that the best interests of the children come first, and then the parents use some common sense, this can save some many conflicts during this uncertain time.
- Engage and utilize a Parenting Coordinator
If you and your co-parent are not getting along during the pandemic, you may want to consider engaging and utilizing a Parenting Coordinator. A Parenting Coordinator is a family law attorney or mental health professional who works divorced and separated parents to “referee” disputes about custody and co-parenting. In most cases, the Parenting Coordinate has the authority to step in the shoes of the judge and resolve disputes with the same authority the judge has, but the dispute can be resolved in a matter of days, rather than waiting weeks, if not months, to get before the judge. The PC will work with parents to come to an agreement on the dispute, but if parents can’t agree, then in most cases, the PC can issue an decision that has the same authority as a court order. At Amaral & Associates, P.C., Attorney Talia Simonds the Parenting Coordinator for the firm.
Co-parents can agree to engage a Parenting Coordinator, and have that agreement approved by the Court administratively without going to court for a hearing. Once you have your PC on board, you can begin working on any co-parenting disputes, including parenting time due to COVID-19, with the PC, and have these issues resolved very quickly, rather than waiting for the courts to reopen for “normal” business. This way, you get your disputes addressed during the pandemic, but you don’t have to wait weeks, if not months, for the courts to begin hearing new issues.
- Work with your attorney on any co-parenting issues
If you and your co-parent can’t agree on parenting time during the pandemic, or any other issue, and that issue doesn’t seem likely to be resolved, contact your attorney. Your attorney will either be able to reach out to your co-parent’s attorney to try to resolve the dispute through negotiation between the attorneys, or if the issue is serious enough, your attorney can file something with the Probate and Family Court, on an emergency basis, to be heard either that same day or within a few days.
Even though the Probate and Family Court is closed to the public, the judges are still hearing emergency matters. Although for most cases the Probate and Family Court is hearing issues relating to domestic violence, Probate and Family Court judges are also hearing issues relating to custody and parenting time on an emergency basis in some cases. At Amaral & Associates, P.C. Attorney Amaral and Attorney Simonds are receiving almost daily updates from the Probate and Family Court as to what matters are being heard on an emergency basis. We will be able to advise you if your issue will rise to the level of an emergency that will be heard by a judge while the court is closed.
For more information about getting a divorce during the coronavirus, or if you want to move your divorce or family law issue forward then please contact Amaral & Associates P.C. today at (617) 539-1010.