Coparenting During COVID-19: All Your Questions Answered

Written by: Akiona Law, PLLC.

INTRODUCTION

For ex-spouses with set Parenting Plans, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially difficult. Coparenting is complicated when you have to do it entirely indoors! In a time where public safety is so important, plenty of parents also have concerns about whether their children are being safe in their time with their coparents. Similarly, it is hard to limit exposure to others when your Parenting Plan requires your child to regularly switch households.

Since things are so complicated, Akiona Law decided to compile the answers to some of our most commonly asked questions below. If you have any questions that are not addressed here, please get in touch with us as soon as possible. Your family law team is waiting to help you!

Can I take my COVID coparenting issue to court?

Technically speaking, yes. While courts are still functioning, they are affected by lasting limitations because of the pandemic and concurrent budget cuts. For this reason, most Judges are advising couples to solve their postdivorce parenting issues outside of court wherever possible. Do not try to set a court date as the first method of resolving the issue. If you are in a situation where you absolutely have to resolve your dispute in court, know that it may take you two weeks or longer to get to court depending on how backed up the court’s calendar is.

How should I resolve my COVID coparenting disputes then?

Absent special circumstances, the court’s view is a parent will get their court ordered parenting time and encourages parents to figure out when will that time occur. This is why Washington state courts recommend parents first work together to settle disputes in rearranging visitation times or exchanges. If you and your coparent come to an agreement, put it in writing, such as, an email or text.

If you and your coparent cannot reach agreement between yourselves, the next step is mediating your dispute. If an agreement is not reached in mediation, then ask the court’s help to resolve your disagreement since all other attempts at resolution failed.

Whichever method you attempt, make sure to keep a paper trail of all communications between you and your coparent about the dispute. Those can be over email, text, voice recordings, or even written letters.

What’s the deal with mediation?

Mediation is a process where an independent third party (known as the mediator) moderates a discussion between two disputing parties.

While the mediator does not make an ultimate ruling, they facilitate the discussion so both sides listen to each other and come to a satisfying compromise. One of the few benefits of the pandemic is that virtual mediation allows families access to a wider range of skilled mediators.

We recommend using a family law mediator (usually a lawyer who primarily did or is still doing family law and divorce cases) rather than a general mediator. A general mediator may be a lawyer who has only done some family law cases, or none at all. A general mediator may also not be a lawyer. Either way, general mediators may lack familiarity or understanding of all the nuances and intricacies of how the courts approach family law issues.

What do I do if my coparent is refusing to send my child back to me?

If your child was staying with their other parent for their scheduled visitation and now the other parent is refusing to bring them back to you, there is an issue.

The courts are requesting that all parents continue to follow their established Parenting Plans at this time. The first step would be figuring out why your coparent is refusing to return the child. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, that obviously is a legitimate reason. If they just have a generalized fear of the child getting sick with you, that is not a legitimate reason. We understand that this is a scary time for everyone, but families should continue to operate safely according to their Parenting Plan.

What if my coparent demands I get a COVID test before exchanging our child?

Since we are in a pandemic, you should try to give your coparent the benefit of the doubt that they are concerned about a legitimate health issue and not simply being spiteful.

COVID tests are free, readily available, and often return results in twenty-four hours. If you miss any of your scheduled time with your child because of a COVID test, request make-up time.

If my coparent is diagnosed with COVID, can I refuse to send my child to their visitation?

Yes! The court expects parents to follow physician’s orders, as well as local and federal health guidelines. If your coparent or any member of their household was diagnosed with COVID, their physician would have ordered them to quarantine and stay away from any unaffected people. This includes their unaffected children, even if it is their weekend for visitation. To help make it up, offer a FaceTime or Zoom call during the weekend and make-up time outside of the regular schedule once they have recovered.

How should I approach this situation?

A good rule of thumb is always to consider, “What would a Judge think about this if they saw it?” Also ask, “Will the Court see I am being reasonable and making a good faith effort to resolve this situation with the other parent?” Or, “Will the Court see my behavior as I am being demanding, inflexible and unreasonable?”

These should be your guiding principles in resolving these situations. We recommend being clear on what the issue is, being kind in your communications, offering make-up time, and going to mediation (which can be virtual if the issue is over health concerns) if all else fails. Going to court should be a last resort, but you should handle all your disputes as though a Judge may look at them one day.

What if my coparent is a frontline worker?

Washington state courts require a good faith reason to ask your coparent to get a COVID test before canceling child visitation. If your coparent is a hospital worker, firefighter, or grocery store worker, you cannot demand a negative test or alter visitation simply because of their job. If you know they work with someone who has tested positive, that is a good faith reason to ask for a negative test.

What if my coparent is not wearing a mask and socially distancing?

While this is a legitimate health concern, it would not be considered a legitimate reason for withholding visitation scheduled by your Parenting Plan.

What if my coparent is not having my child wear a mask and socially distance in public?

This is an issue that, while important, may not make it all the way to court. For that reason, we would encourage the coparents to have a genuine conversation about the issue and try to resolve it. Regardless of either party’s feelings about safety measures, they do have to follow federal and state mandates as well as business rules regarding them. Make sure you listen to their side and make them feel heard as you search for a resolution.

What if a coparent is diagnosed with COVID and the child staying with them is not?

An open, honest and heartfelt conversation may be necessary to make a decision. If your child has tested negative for COVID but has been staying with someone who has tested positive, there is still an inherent health risk in picking up your child. Make sure both sides are comfortable with whatever decision you come to.

What if I don’t have a court-approved Parenting Plan yet?

This is a difficult situation. If you do not have a Parenting Plan, then there is nothing that either coparent could be held in contempt of. That means that both coparents are at the mercy of the other since there is no legal obligation to behave a certain way or follow a certain schedule. The only upside of this is that it will allow you to see the things that are important to include in your Parenting Plan when it gets written.

Can I include a COVID provision in my Parenting Plan?

If you are still creating or waiting to create your Parenting Plan, yes! There is a section in your Parenting Plan for special provisions and that can include a “pandemic provision.” If you have been parenting in this pandemic without a set Parenting Plan, you probably already know what you would like to include. If you have already made your Parenting Plan, there is no need to modify your existing order to add in a pandemic provision.

Some Washington State Superior Courts released specific guidelines explaining how your Parenting Plan or Child Support is affected by the pandemic. Check with a family law and divorce lawyer to see what information or guidelines your local court issued.

What if my coparent wants to move because of COVID?

Since many workplaces are all virtual now, many people are moving. That is natural. There should be a Relocation section of your Parenting Plan that addresses what happens if one coparent wants to move away from the other. Since these situations depend entirely on the individual circumstances, you should speak to a family law attorney to see what your options are.

If my coparent is withholding visitation because of COVID, can I withhold child support?

Since your Parenting Plan and Child Support Order are separate legally-binding documents, you cannot stop following one court order simply because the other parent isn’t following another court order.

Do I have to pay child support if I have lost my job because of COVID?

This issue, like moving, depends entirely on the circumstances of your situation and your child support order. If you lost your job because of COVID, you may be eligible for a temporary adjustment or modification of your child support payment. How much and for how long depends on the amount of federal and state unemployment benefits you receive, how long you are out of work, what other employment opportunities are available to you, and how hard are you looking for a job. You should speak with a family law lawyer experienced in modifying child support to determine if you qualify for a temporary adjustment or modification of child support. Until your child support is adjusted or modified, do not miss your child support payment!

What if my coparent wants to travel with the children during COVID?

This is a tricky situation. If your coparent wants to travel with your children during their set visitation time, they are allowed to. Obviously, we understand having health concerns about that process, so start by voicing them in a calm manner. If you want to offer an alternative solution, it doesn’t hurt to ask. If your coparent wants to travel with your children during their own time without breaking any laws, it would be very difficult to stop them.

What if I have other questions?

You’ve come to the right place! At Akiona Law, our family law team has been working nonstop since the start of the pandemic to resolve COVID-related disputes. As the information and circumstances surrounding public safety continue to change, so too will our approach to family issues. Contact Akiona Law today to get any further questions you may have answered! We believe in caring for you in your time of crisis, so our phones are answered 24/7, 365 days a year. Get in touch today!

Akiona Law, PLLC
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