Though COVID-19 has certainly thrown us a number of curveballs over the last year, Massachusetts Courts have made it clear that the pandemic is not a reason to suspend previously existing parenting plans that had already been approved by the Court. In fact, the Chief Justice of the Probate Court in Massachusetts recently issued an open letter reiterating that both parents must be provided with meaningful time with their children, regardless of quarantines or lockdowns.
Parenting Challenges Presented by COVID-19
Perhaps the most obvious difficulty associated with maintaining equal parenting time during the pandemic has been the physical limitations that occur when children have been exposed to the virus and must quarantine at home. This typically means one parent has to quarantine with the children, while the other parent is unable to spend in-person time with them for 10 to 14 days. Also, if one parent must self-quarantine after virus exposure, s/he has to miss out on normal parenting time as well.
Additionally, remote learning school schedules have disrupted normal routines, as well as complicated parents’ working situations. If one parent typically has the children during the week (when traditionally they have been at school), and the children are now doing virtual classes at home, the parent now has to either arrange for oversight for the children during their schooling time or else, if working from home, juggle work responsibilities while assisting children with education-related questions.
Since many extracurricular activities have been canceled over the last year, some parents also find themselves needing to provide extra supervision for their children’s free time, which can potentially eat into their work time or result in the need to modify co-parenting schedules. Babysitters, tutors, or supplemental instruction may cause additional expenses that may need to be incorporated into a child support order.
Parents who have lost jobs or experienced reduced hours or a pay cut over the last year may suddenly find themselves unable to meet their support obligations due to new financial circumstances.
Be Creative in Finding Co-Parenting Solutions
While there are no easy answers at the moment for determining the “new normal” in co-parenting plans, the parents involved must be able to communicate enough to figure out a temporary solution. They may need to think outside the box to come up with alternatives. For example, if one parent is not able to physically visit children who are under quarantine, perhaps Zoom sessions, FaceTime, or phone calls could be an option in the meantime. The parent who is quarantining with the children could also allow the other parent to make up missed visitation after the quarantine is over.
The goal should be to abide by state safety guidelines while also adhering to Court orders. Both parents should try their best to accommodate each other’s work schedules and their children’s varied school schedules, with the goal of maximizing both parties’ free time with the children.
It is critical to understand that any informal agreements between parents in relation to support or scheduling modifications are likely not enforceable unless they are reduced to a Court order. In other words, if a parent who has informally agreed to a modification later changes his or her mind, the other parent could be found in contempt of Court. Even if a parent loses his or her job and can no longer afford child support, only the Court can modify an existing Court order.
Communication is the Key to Co-Parenting
There is no substitute for healthy communication. Open communication between both parents is essential in times like these. Understandably, that can be very difficult in some circumstances, but for the sake of the children, the parents must do their best. After all, it’s in the best interest of children to have meaningful, regular contact with both of their parents. Since the Courts aren’t micromanaging this level of minutia in co-parenting plans, it is up to the parents to come up with a workable plan to address the challenges brought on by COVID-19.Co-parenting apps that produce transcripts of conversations can be helpful tools to keep everyone open, honest, and transparent. If the parents reach an impasse, they may need to reach out to an attorney who can work to meet the needs of all parties involved while also keeping everyone safe and healthy.
Navigating the challenges brought on by the pandemic is still difficult for everyone. We’re all struggling to establish new norms, so it’s important to be patient with each other as we seek solutions. Temporary adjustments to parenting plans due to extenuating circumstances are an attempt to balance state-issued safety guidelines with Court-appointed orders. There are no specific rules in place to manage the gray areas being encountered by parents, but the Courts have been very clear that one parent can’t deny the other one time with the children under the guise of COVID-19.
For additional information regarding Co-Parenting During COVID-19 contact our office at 508-925-8061