Do I Need to Follow my Custody Order During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has impacted families in a number of ways. In the last week, countless clients and local families who are subject to a custody order have asked, in essence, do I need to follow my custody order during the coronavirus outbreak?
First and foremost, a custody order is a court order, which should be followed, even during a pandemic. If your order directs you to exchange your child on Wednesdays at 5:00 PM, you should make your best effort to do so.
That said, here are five factors to consider to ensure your family stays safe and healthy while following a custody order:
Location of the exchange
A fair amount of custody orders provide for exchanges to take place in public, for example at a McDonald’s. The goal of social distancing is to avoid public places, so if possible, custodial exchanges should occur in empty parking lots or curbside from one parent’s house to another. If you continue with your custodial exchange, it is more important than ever to follow proper handwashing.
Pre-existing health conditions
If a parent or child subject to the order has a health condition that makes them more susceptible to illness, you should consider suspending the visits. That also applies to households with medical professionals who may have daily contact with sick patients.
To be clear, this health crisis does not provide carte blanche to suspend custodial visits; any modification to the custodial schedule should be done thoughtfully and in conjunction with an attorney. If you do not have an attorney, be sure to memorialize your agreement with the other party in writing.
If is it unsafe to continue in-person visits, consider virtual visits. There are many video conferencing programs that can be used so parents who may not be able to engage in in- person visits can still see and have meaningful conversations with their children. This may be your only option if the County you live in is directed to shelter in place.
Access to the Court
During this health crisis, the courts are limiting access. An exception to this is custodial emergencies that impact the safety of children. It is unclear at this point, what must be alleged to obtain an emergency hearing, but it appears to be restricted to children in imminent danger.
Contempt of Court
Worried of being held in contempt when courts resume regular access? If you are making your best efforts to comply with your order, remain willing to modify the order by working with the other parent, and are engaging in virtual visits when able, the Courts will likely find you have done your best to comply during this unprecedented situation.
Even with Pennsylvania Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home order in place across several PA counties, the Governor’s Office of General Counsel has given guidance that travel to keep custodial exchanges will not be prohibited.
Attorney Kellie Rahl-Heffner focuses her practice in the area of family law, assisting individuals in divorce proceedings as well as child support, child custody, adoption, and other matters.