Attorneys across Shulman Rogers’ full range of practice areas have been working to support and counsel businesses and families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective foundation has been rocked – and we appreciate the opportunity to provide clients with stability during these trying times.
In addition to working one-on-one with clients to respond to these unforeseen challenges – our Divorce and Family Law attorneys are publishing a series of articles, which we will share over the next few weeks, to address some frequently asked questions.
Custody issues were tricky prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this crisis has definitely generated additional layers of complexity. We have seen a surge in the number of people contacting us either because they fear for their child’s well-being if they send them to the other parent or because the other parent is refusing to allow children to travel to them for court-ordered parenting time or visitation. Visitation refusal is even happening between parents who live only blocks apart.
In most co-parenting, or court ordered child custody relationships, one parent does not generally have the right to decide when visitations should or should not occur. That purview is left to the discretion of the courts or other custody agreements between the parties. Nonetheless, and during these times of crisis, the refrain often heard from a refusing parent is that their unilateral refusal of child visitation is justified for reasons including: the Governor’s “stay-at-home” order, potential health risks of car/train/bus/air travel, and the belief that the other parent will not comply with social distancing/safety measures necessary to keep children safe. In addressing those issues, consider the following:
Currently, most of our courts are closed for nearly all purposes for the immediate future, likely at least through mid-June. While the courts have remained open for emergency matters such as domestic violence and child custody emergencies as discussed, how those matters are being handled has changed and continues to evolve. The operative fact to be gleaned here is that the term “emergency” is subjectively viewed by the courts and must truly rise to the level of an immediate safety concern to the children before a judge will consider addressing the issue outside of the ordinary course.
In claimed emergency situations, the coronavirus crisis has increased the need for the courts to address ex parte matters purely on the pleadings (papers filed with the court). Ex parte means that the matter is addressed with respect to or in the interests of one side only without the benefit of hearing from the other side. During these unprecedented times, oral arguments in support of emergency custody motions are only allowed in limited cases, and when deemed appropriate, those hearings are typically carried out through telephone or video appearances. In some situations, the pandemic has also prompted our courts to accept email filings so the court staff does not have to handle papers that might be virus-contaminated. Court procedures are still very much in flux and changing from day to day. Given this fact, when dealing with any court related custody issues, emergency or otherwise, it is even more important now to consult with an experienced family law attorney who is keeping abreast of local (and ever changing) court developments in your area.
If you are faced with visitation refusal during COVID-19 or with other disputes regarding visitation and custody, general wisdom dictates that court custody orders are to be followed or, if no orders are in place, then follow previous family practice or custody agreement, unless doing so would create a demonstrable risk of serious or irreparable harm to the children. If you believe that is your situation rises to the level of an emergency, then you may need to seek assistance from the courts. However, we caution you that going to court on an ex parte basis has always been difficult and is even more so at this time without the guidance of a skilled practitioner by your side. Most importantly, this is not a time to try to bend the rules, and the consequences could be harsh for parents who take advantage of the crisis to violate their co-parent’s rights of access.
The contents of this article are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. If you think you have a legitimate reason to deviate from your regular custody practice or current court custody orders, or if you are facing a custody refusal, please discuss your situation with a member of our experienced and respected Shulman Rogers Divorce and Family Law Group.
Stay up to date with all the latest news and events.