Child custody is typically the most emotionally challenging and stressful part of any divorce. Managing child custody and visitation during COVID-19 is an additional stressor that further convolutes the process.
Inanimate objects and money can be more easily and fairly shared between parties; however, children are understandably far more important than the division of financial assets. The results of child custody and visitation are usually what parties spend the most amount of time negotiating or litigating. Additionally, this element of any divorce depends largely on the type of divorce occurring and the nature of the relationship between parents.
Some parents can separate amicably and develop their own routine with a healthy co-parenting dynamic. Other parties may endure tough divorces that involve disputes on the grounds for the divorce, sometimes these divorces may even involve crime such as domestic abuse. Regardless of the nature of the divorce, the added element of COVID-19 makes things even more complicated.
Here are some solutions and ideas as it relates to managing child custody and visitation during COVID-19.
Can I Change the Child Visitation Order?
Child custody and support orders can be modified; however, there must be an emergency with documented evidence to support modifying the order. The existence of COVID-19 itself is not a strong enough reason to modify an order in Maryland or Washington D.C.
However, if you can provide specific evidence that one party is violating government-issued safety precautions, you may be able to develop a case. In Maryland, you are required to show “a credible risk of imminent and substantial physical or emotional harm to a child or parent.” Speaking with a divorce attorney is an effective route to take when trying to find out if you have enough evidence to modify an order. With enough evidence, an emergency temporary custody order can be submitted to court and reviewed by a judge. This is the path you would take if you are unable to find common ground with your co-parent.
Keep in mind that specific and detailed evidence must be presented. Presenting rumors or “gut feelings” to a judge will not get you the result you are looking for. Instead, be sure to preserve all communications with your co-parent, and find documentation that they are creating a grossly negligent or significantly dangerous situation for the children.
Another important note to remember is that emergency orders at this moment in time do not apply solely to COVID-19. Of course, if you suspect that your co-parent may be abusing the children, or creating an unsafe environment that does not involve exposure to COVID-19, you should contact a divorce attorney immediately. A trained divorce attorney will be able to produce a motion for an emergency order promptly so you can ensure the health and safety of your children.
What if Both Parents Agree to Modify the Order Outside of Court?
This is a possible path you can take if you are on agreeable terms with your co-parent. Parents can create a stipulated agreement that does not require the court’s approval. However, if one parent changes their mind, the other parent cannot request the court to enforce the stipulated agreement.
This is a great option to take if you want to avoid court and can also find common ground with your co-parent. Courts expect parents to make the best interests of their children the main priority. It is important to discuss the specifics with your co-parent, and figure out the precise details as it relates to things like social distancing, what type of events the children can attend, whether they will be going to school in person or via teleconference, and so on.
When these agreements are made, it is vital to document them. Even though you may be on good terms, even the best co-parenting dynamics are susceptible to disagreement further down the road when sudden changes occur. Additionally, even though you are avoiding court, it is still wise to contact your divorce attorney to make sure you are taking the right steps. Be sure to also document all communications with your co-parent regarding modifying the order.
Modifying the Order
The first step you will have to take to modify any order is to submit a motion for a hearing to modify the order. One of the important elements to consider is “substantive changes” that the courts will take into consideration. Some of these changes include things like geographic moves, or getting/losing a job. However, it is still important to note that courts are not yet reviewing non-emergency hearings. As previously mentioned, in order to modify an order at the moment, you must provide evidence to show it rises to an emergency level.
Child Support Payments
As we have seen extensively, COVID-19 has had a dramatic and negative economic impact. Many people have lost jobs, have taken pay cuts, or are having a significantly challenging time finding new and well-paying work. As it relates to child support, there are some individuals who are genuinely going through difficult financial times and there are also individuals who are trying to exploit the system.
This is another circumstance that will be heavily influenced by the relationship you have with your co-parent. If you have a co-parent who cannot pay their child support, or are requesting to reduce payments temporarily, you should consider your level of trust with them. If you fully trust them, it may be reasonable to allow for reduced payments as they recover from COVID-19’s economic impact. If you have your doubts, the unfortunate news is that you are unlikely to have a hearing on the matter before a court any time soon.
A child support hearing is not considered an emergency hearing. If you are struggling because your ex-spouse is not meeting their obligations, you may need to find temporary alternatives to pay your bills until courts reopen to full capacity. Additionally, there will be many other dockets and issues that will create a backlog for the courts. It is highly advisable to contact a divorce attorney to get started on the process.
Contact The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl
If you are wondering whether or not you have a case to successfully modify a child custody order, you should contact The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl at (410) 696-4326. These cases require significant and detailed evidence to persuade a judge. As COVID-19 shows no signs of leaving any time soon, we understand that you want to make your child’s health your top priority. We are happy to help you through the process and discover what your options are. Additionally, if you want to review ways you can change your child support order when courts begin reviewing those cases, we can assist you with that as well.