How To Co-Parent During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Here's how divorce lawyers and separated parents are handling social distancing, custody arrangements and child support during the COVID-19 crisis.
Right now, "you should be bending over backwards to be accommodating and understanding," attorneys say.
Right now, "you should be bending over backwards to be accommodating and understanding," attorneys say.

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.”

“Behave well, for you may be judged down the road on how you handled this.”

- Randall Kessler, a divorce lawyer in Atlanta

“Right now, you should be bending over backwards 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.

Be flexible.

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 flexible about child custody agreements and child support during this pandemic, experts say.
Be flexible about child custody agreements and child support during this pandemic, experts say.

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.”

Flexibility -- and lots of FaceTime -- is key to good co-parenting during this pandemic. 
Flexibility -- and lots of FaceTime -- is key to good co-parenting during this pandemic. 

Get any modifications to your custody agreement in writing.

Because so many work lives have been upended, some exes are agreeing to slightly different terms than those outlined in their custody agreements. If you are modifying your custody agreement, consider getting it in writing, especially if you think your ex might take advantage of the amended parenting plan after the outbreak.

“I’d even say have your mediator or attorney draft a simple stipulation saying the amended schedule is not setting a precedent and has an end date,” Patton said. “Everyone can sign it now, and it will be filed once the courts reopen. I’ve been doing this for clients who are making sensible changes to the parenting schedule through cooperation but want to be sure they aren’t going to be facing a legal battle to get the schedule back to normal when this is over.”

If you and your ex are at odds when it comes to who has the kids right now, follow your court orders. But if one parent may have COVID-19, act reasonably.

Rebecca Long Okura, a family law attorney in Salt Lake City, said she’s heard a lot of parents ask if they can refuse to send the children to the other parent’s home right now. (For instance, in cases where they’re worried about safe social distancing practices.)

“The simple answer is that parents have to follow their court orders,” she said. “However, courts are not blind that in some cases, following the court orders is unsafe for the children. Most courts are unable to hear cases on this issue right now because the court system is still trying to establish its own response to the coronavirus.”

That said, if one of you may have been exposed to COVID-19, act rationally (even if it goes against your custody agreement).

“No one knows what judges are going to say when parents refuse to follow orders in cases where the other household is very high risk or has an infected person in the household, but I don’t think judges will be rigid about court orders in those high-risk cases,” Long Okura said.

Don’t risk exposing your kids to COVID-19 just to enforce the custody schedule, Patton said.

“If you and your kids have been exposed to the virus, be considerate of your ex, share the information and, if possible, keep the children until you’re sure they are not sick or carriers,” she said.

Keep your ex in the loop about updates on your kid's schooling and health.
Keep your ex in the loop about updates on your kid's schooling and health.

In times of crisis like this, over-communicate with your ex.

Lindsey Light, a professor and mom of two kids, is generally on the same page as her ex when it comes to parenting their 8-year-old and 6-year-old. The same is true now: Her ex has a parent who is very ill and a living grandparent, so he knows the importance of social distancing. They also both recognize the importance of heightened communication between the two houses during these stressful times.

“We text often, and the kids have always been allowed to call or FaceTime us as much as they want,” she said. “I forward him communication from their school, and I even sent him a copy of the schedule I’m using at home. We also are on the same page about not freaking our kids out by talking about the virus all the time or providing details that aren’t age-appropriate.”

At the end of the day, compromise now and save the fighting for later.

Family lawyers everywhere are telling their clients to compromise and get through this now and fight later, if they absolutely must, Kessler said.

“Personally, I think the situation is evolving too quickly to reach a full, negotiated and memorialized document right now about it,” he said. “In the future, there may be ‘corona clauses’ where in such a situation where there is no school, the summer schedule takes over and lasts through the pandemic or other situation. But at this point, if parents still need lawyers to argue and fight about what to do, they are in trouble. Now is the time to work together. ”


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