With the international outbreak of COVID-19, everybody is under a lot of new stress, especially parents. I have receive a lot of questions from current and former clients on how to best handle custody and support issues during this time.
South Carolina family court's have not issued any specific directive on how to deal with these issues. Trial courts are currently closed throughout the state including the family courts which are closed through at least May 1st. These closures have left a lot of people wondering how to operate right now, it is my hope that this will provide some guidance and answer some the most frequently asked questions I have received. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers put out a seven point guide for parents sharing custody during this pandemic which should be helpful to parents dealing with shared custody during this time.
Remember to model good behavior for your children. Make sure you are washing your hands and cleaning surfaces regularly, continuing to follow all the CDC guidelines and trying to protect your family and your children.
It is important to be honest with your child(ren) about the seriousness of this pandemic, but also be sure to do it in an age appropriate way. It is good to encourage our child(ren) to ask questions of us and try to answer as truthfully and accurately as we can, but we want to make sure that we're also doing our best to not scare them and inundate them with 24/7 news. It is important to understand that the child(ren)'s stress reactions differ from adult's and so it is important to temper the news with other activities.
Remain Complant with Existing Court Orders
If you have an existing court order which deals with custody and visitation, then it is important to remain compliant with that order. Right now, with the courts closed, there is no enforcement mechanism for existing orders. Family courts are only hearing emergencies, and, generally speaking, a denial of visitation is probably not going to rise to the level of an emergency. However, during this time, it's important to remain compliant as best you can. It is my feeling that once the courts reopen, parents who have used COVID-19 as a way to deny the other parent contact or visitation with the child(ren) will likely be dealt with harshly. Keep in mind that those orders remain in effect until there is a court order saying something different.
This virus and the social distancing that comes with it is causing a lot of us to have to change our plans. When vacations get canceled or parents lose time with the child(ren) for other reasons, try to get with that co-parent and be creative about how to make up any lost time or, at the very least, encourage some additional phone contact, FaceTime, etc. Anything that we can do as parents to help nourish the parent-child relationship with our co-parent is going to be good for the child and make you look good in front of the court should a hearing become necessary.
Make sure that your co-parent knows if there is a serious concern that you or someone in your household has been exposed to the virus. Be transparent in letting the other parent know what's going on, and getting tested if necessary. If you or your child(ren) are showing any symptoms of COVID-19, talk with your co-parent and make sure that you have a plan in place for the best way to handle that.
That goes back to what I said above about trying to encourage makeup time to the best of your ability. If your co-parent is losing a week at the beach with the child(ren) because the hotel is shut down or the beach is shut down, then try to figure out a way that the co-parent can get make-up time once it is safe to do so. Remember, studies show that children need time with both parents. The more we can accommodate the co-parent, the better it is going to be for the child(ren).
The entire country is under enormous pressure right, financial pressures especially. Be understanding if the non-custodial parent who is ordered to pay child support comes up a little short in their monthly payment. Try to accommodate them as best as you can given the historical spike in unemployment and the overall downturn of the economy. Notwithstanding, if you are the parent that is ordered to pay child support, you should continue paying it to the extent that you are able. That means just because you cannot pay the full amount of support owed doesn't mean that you can't pay anything. Even if you're only able to make a partial payment, you should do so.