Co-parenting alone can be very complicated. But co-parenting through a global pandemic gets even more tricky, says family law specialist Erin Levine of Alameda. Levine, who has been practicing for 15 years, is also founder and CEO of a legal technology startup called Hello Divorce. It offers online legal help and wellness support for a flat fee.
She recently talked to Bay Area Parent about co-parenting during a shelter-in-place mandate, what to do when a parent or child gets coronavirus, school closures and more.
Who gets the children when there’s a shelter-in-place in a co-parenting arrangement?
It’s kind of like the wild, wild, west right now because we aren’t getting any guidance from the courts. So, I’ve talked to other family law specialists and the advice we are giving is, if it is a local custody exchange, it should continue. There are exceptions to the shelter-in-place that allow for custody exchanges as a court orders, leaving your home for purposes of caring for a family member, which we believe are clear exceptions and do mean we should be doing exchanges.
Would you recommend the two parents move in together temporarily during the shelter-in-place?
It depends on the relationship between the two parties. When people are fearful, tired or scared, or whatever heightened emotion they are feeling, it can really impact how we communicate. The important thing is to shield our kids from conflict. Kids are resilient when it comes to divorce or separation – except when they are exposed to conflict over an extended period of time.
What happens to the kids if a parent gets the coronavirus?
What’s happening in a lot of situations when they suspect one of the parents has coronavirus, the other parent will take the child. I suppose there may be some parents who don’t want to for fear of their own exposure. But I haven’t seen that yet.
If a parent infected with the virus loses joint custody time with their child, can they get make-up time with their child once they are well?
One thing we know is, if someone gets sick with the coronavirus, they are going to get their joint custody back as soon as they are testing negative. …If you have a divorce judgement or court order, look to that. A lot of times, those orders will say what happens if you miss custodial time. If it’s not in there, then you should work directly with your co-parent to see if they would be agreeable to make up time. If not, I’m encouraging people to work with a co-parenting counselor or parenting coordinator. The difference between the two is the co-parenting counselor will just try to help the parties work out an agreement. A parenting coordinator can actually make a decision if the parties can’t agree. I suggest a parenting coordinator because they are trained psychologists in co-parenting and child custody. I would much rather have a parenting coordinator making a decision about my child than an overworked judge who, the last thing he or she wants to be doing, is determining make-up time.
What happens if the child gets coronavirus?
You want to look to your parenting agreement, to your court order or to your divorce judgement to see if you have any agreement regarding when your child gets hurt or needs medical treatment. Sometimes, you have to notify your ex, sometimes if there’s an emergency you don’t. But as soon as the child receives treatment and things calm down, you have to notify. I think what’s most important is for people to be as transparent as possible with the other parent because when we don’t have information, we get scared and when we’re scared, we do really irrational things. That’s just human nature. What we want to do is look at where that child lives. If that child lives with grandparents, we may want to move the child. But if the other parent has other children, you don’t want to bring that child home and spread the virus. Usually the child would stay put. But parents need to communicate.
How do you handle co-parenting with school closures?
A lot of parents are used to the exchange happening at school. Now they have to do face-to-face exchanges and they are fighting over time. Is it a morning drop-off or evening drop-off? Again, look to your court order if you have one. If you don’t, then do what you do when the kids don’t have school. Stick to what your general practice is when the kids don’t have school.
What if people are having problems paying child support because they lost their job or are not working because of the coronavirus? Or, what if they need more support because they can’t afford expenses?
Ordinarily, we say a court order is a court order. But we are getting guidance from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers to ask clients to pay as much as they can. But hopefully, they won’t stop because people depend on this support. The important thing is to get legal help because, generally speaking, support is only modifiable back to the day that you file a request with the court – not back to the day that your income changes.
What if you have one parent who is not taking the coronavirus seriously?
You have a court order and you are expected to exchange your kid with the other parent. But ultimately, you are the parent and you have to decide if you’re willing to risk being in contempt of a court order. Frankly, as a mom, and if my co-parent were putting him or herself at risk, I just would not exchange. I would keep my kid and deal with the aftermath later. I don’t think courts are going to be in the business of punishing people for making a judgement call like this.
… The biggest question I get is when the other parent is in the healthcare industry and are potentially treating people for the coronavirus. They usually say they don’t want their child near that. A lot of doctors and nurses are letting their child stay with the other co-parent. People are looking for guidance from us, but a lot are working it out between them.
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.