Managing Co-Parenting Challenges During the Pandemic Holiday Season.
Massachusetts is in a new surge of Covid-19 cases as we head into the precious and magical time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and we anticipate many more months of remote/protected work and hybrid/remote school. That means an extended period of parenting challenges, including tenuous child care, potential sudden school closures, ever-expanding and then contracting work schedules, job loss/furlough, insecurity when shopping and running errands, and health concerns of our own aging parents. While vaccines are on the horizon, there is much uncertainty in their timing, availability, and efficacy.
What does all this mean for our co-parenting plans and transitioning our children to and from former spouses/partners and across two (or more) home units?
It was easier in the summer when virus numbers were lower and we vacationed with our kids with lots of outdoor activities available. As we weather the pandemic through December and the New Year, spending meaningful time with our children promises to add new obstacles to an already challenging situation.
There are some strategies we can adopt to make this difficult time a little easier, including arming ourselves with the latest information on rules surrounding co-parenting orders and Covid.
Must I (and my elderly parents) Risk Exposure to COVID-19 by Allowing my Child to Visit the Other Parent’s Home?
Other than an active Covid infection, which would of course warrant that one parent forebear from spending time with the children, unless the children would be put in demonstrable harm’s way by spending time with the other parent, the child or children should transition to the other parent as agreed by Separation Agreement, Modification Agreement, Court Orders or Judgment. COVID-19 should not serve as an excuse to withhold a child from the other parent.
Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court John Casey issued a public letter in the early days of the Covid-19 shelter reminding parents that “It is important that children spend time with both of their parents and that each parent have the opportunity to engage in family activities, where [already] provided for by court order.” Simply stated, if your Agreement or Orders provide for holiday time or December vacation time with the parents, the agreement must be followed unless otherwise modified by agreement.
Risking exposure to the virus is anxiety-producing and stressful for both parents, all members of each household, and the child in question. We live in an age of blended families, where the family “bubble” or “pod” that is being touted in the media can be aspirational. In most situations, unless co-parents make proactive new parenting plan agreements cooperatively and quickly that include agreements regarding COVID exposure, children will be crossing environmental lines for the holidays pursuant to old Orders. If you and your co-parent cannot agree on a solution, you may turn to the court for a judge to decide the issue.
In order to avoid the increased stress of the anticipated holiday virus surge, here are a few examples of alternative parenting plan agreements that integrate safety and health and also promote time with each parent during the holidays.
1. To ensure the safety of both households where parents reside in the same general local area, you may temporarily agree to have a 50/50 parenting plan. This would mean an agreement to each spend 14 days consecutively with the children and further agreeing to quarantine during that 14 day parenting time so that each two-week visit ensures the safety of the next two-week visit with the other parent.
2. To heighten connection the parents could agree to alternative forms of parenting time when the child is staying at the other parent’s home. This may include communicating via videoconferencing modes such as Zoom and FaceTime or playing online games together. Outdoor activities such as daily masked walks through the neighborhood or time together in the parks or fields are also a great way to safely spend time together.
3. To recognize that changes in the parenting plan are situation-specific and temporary solutions, parents can agree to schedule make-up parenting time after a temporary Covid-19 related informal modification to the agreed parenting plan.
4. To even out inequities, parents can agree to extended vacation time during February and March vacation.
To properly formalize your agreement and prevent legal problems in the future, it is advisable to seek counsel so that agreements are memorialized and the Court can issue Orders, if and as warranted.
Do I have Recourse if my Former Spouse or Former Partner is Being Unreasonable?
Yes, as always. While the courts are closed to the public, they are operating and the judges are deciding cases in Zoom and phone hearings. Emergency matters may warrant an immediate telephonic hearing. While the courts have raised the threshold for what constitutes an emergency matter, it can still be done. Your attorney can get your case into court by using different strategies for filing and presenting emergency motions during this time period. Alternatively, now may be the time to consider mediation and private adjudication to resolve differences without going to court.
What if the Court Does Not Think My Issue Amounts to an Emergency?
Even if your matter cannot be expedited as an emergency, you can still file your motion or modification action at court to get in the queue for a hearing. Modification actions and parenting plan motions that are not urgent are proceeding in due course. Some courts are backlogged and not scheduling non-emergency motions for many months, so do not wait. File now. Attorneys recognize that some former spouses and former partners are not reasonable, and you may need help if you are not prepared to take this on alone. Partner with an attorney with whom you have a good rapport and who you trust will give you the best representation for this most stressful co-parenting challenge of managing parenting time transitions in this unprecedented pandemic time of coveted December holidays.
Lisa Cukier is a firm partner and Executive Committee member. She concentrates her practice on all aspects of divorce & custody, estate & trust litigation, fiduciary litigation, probate law, parentage issues, planning and litigation for blended families, adoption, guardianship and conservatorship, and intra-family disputes alleging undue influence and elder financial exploitation. Lisa serves as a private adjudicator, mediator, guardian ad litem, and special master for the courts.
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