Child custody and the pandemic: What you need to know

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Life during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for millions of Americans. For parents, this new landscape has presented unique and pressing challenges to family life, particularly if a parent is bound by  child custody arrangement.

When it comes to parents who co-parent with another person, many have complained about the ambiguity that comes with predetermined child custody plans within the context of  this time. These plans, some of which may be ordered by local courts, were determined for a time when people could move freely with little to no fear of the transmission of illness. . Now, in a world dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, parents and their children are more worried about shuttling a child between two homes, and may even be prohibited by local shelter-in-place regulations.

As 2020 continues to be dominated by COVID-19, many courts across the country have started to create contingency plans for parents and family members to modify or temporarily change their child custody agreements to reflect the unprecedented landscape that has continued into September.

Below are three things a parent or family member may need to know if they have a child custody plan that has been affected by the pandemic. Each case is different, so while this may give a person a broad understanding of child custody during this volatile time, local child custody attorneys will be the most up to date resource for a person looking to modify or change a child custody plan.

Know Your State Laws about Movement or Modifications

While many states are beginning to reopen and allow residents more movement, it is important that a person knows their state or local laws surrounding movement and travel. Some states are allowing open travel, while others may prohibit a person from one state or county to enter. Understanding any limitations may help a parent be better informed about their options for moving a child under a child custody plan.

Additionally, a person should look at what their state government or family court is saying about modifications or temporary changes to existing child custody plans. Some courts may be closed, which means court-sanctioned modifications may not be possible and may require co-parents to reach an agreement on their own, if possible. If a parent feels like there are no valid options for them, then reaching out to a local family attorney may give a person clarity in their unique situation.

Modifications are Possible – But Mediation is Best

With coronavirus on the minds of many, it comes as no surprise that parents want to exercise extra caution with the health and safety of their children. This comes into play for parents who may need to exchange children for court-ordered periods at another parent’s house, or for joint custody with a parent who works in a job with increased exposure, like a hospital employee.

There is additional fear that the one parent may not practice social distancing or wear a mask, further increasing the risk of infection for both the child and the other parent when the child goes back to their alternate home. With these valid concerns, it is important for a parent to know that they may be forced to adhere to their current child custody plan unless there is an agreement to suspend or modify the plan.

A person may be able to modify an agreement, whether temporarily or permanently, but it’s important to understand that it can be a complicated process – especially with court closures, busy dockets, and other limitations to legal services due to the pandemic.

A parent’s best route would be to go through mediation or other out of court discussions to decide upon plan changes to then submit to the court, rather than go to court to iron out the details. While mediation may not be an option for some, it is typically the easiest way to modify a child custody plan with little to no fuss.

Remember – Put the Child First

Even in the turbulent times of the coronavirus, a parent should remember that the child custody plan is not only in place for the parents, but for the child as well. The safety of the child, and their input into where they would like to live, should be accounted for in any decision made about the child’s custody plan.

While a court may try to weigh the child’s best interest in modifying a child custody agreement, it may also be beneficial to discuss with the child what they would like to see happen. Even if this does not get implemented within plan modifications, it is always beneficial to incorporate a child in the agreement that they will be inevitably impacted by.

Maneuvering Child Custody During COVID-19

There is no hiding how difficult the pandemic has been on all walks of life in the U.S. For parents, the pandemic has generated unique and nuanced challenges to school, activities, and even parenting plans. While there is still a high degree of change in the day to day lives as children start to return to school and parents return to work, a person may benefit from the guidance of an experienced attorney in their child custody arrangements.

Whether a parent is trying to modify small parts of their plan, or if they want a complete overhaul of an existing child custody agreement, an attorney may be a solid element in a fluid world. Parents may not have all the answers, but at least with an attorney by their side, they can begin to draft a sense of normalcy for themselves and their children in this ever-changing pandemic.

Story by Charles Wheland of Chattanooga Family Law Firm Yates & Wheland


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