Child Custody and Visitation During COVID-19
When couples with children go through a divorce or separation, it is more important than ever to protect the well-being of the children. The physical and legal custody of children, as well as any visitation schedules, must be worked out between the parents and can often be a point of contention. Under normal circumstances, how these issues are resolved has a significant impact on the life of the child and the amount of child support that must be paid.
With the arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and society's responses, these decisions regarding custody and visitation of children have only increased in importance and urgency.Types of Custody
Generally, custody can be broken into two types - physical custody and legal custody.
Physical custody is the decision of where the child will live. Physical custody can take the form of either sole or joint custody. Under sole custody, one parent will have the exclusive care of the child. Alternatively, joint custody can involve a number of different arrangements depending on what the parties agree to or a judge decides.
Legal custody involves the right of parents to make important decisions on behalf of their child. Issues of major significance involving a child's health, education, and life can hinge on which parent has legal custody.
In the state of North Carolina, there is no presumption about which parent is better suited to have custody of the child(ren). Instead, the judge will try to determine the best interest of the child and will consider all factors that may impact the well-being of the child. Generally, courts prefer if both parents are involved in their child's life, but there is never any automatic custody or visitation.
If you are in a situation where your custodial or visitation rights are at risk or will be in dispute, it is critical to consult with an experienced family law attorney who can advise you of your rights and responsibilities. Please contact the family attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC and we can advise you during this difficult and often emotional time.Response to COVID-19
In a step to slow the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus, on March 27, 2020, Governor Roy Cooper announced that all of North Carolina would be under a "Stay-at-Home Order" for, at least, thirty days (currently until April 29, 2020). This Stay-at-Home Order prioritizes "social distancing" measures and restricting the size of any gatherings to no more than 10 people. It also prohibits nonessential travel but allows for "travel between one's place or places of residence for purposes including, but not limited to, child custody or visitation arrangements."
Because of this unique situation and the numerous concerns regarding custody and visitation, on April 13, 2020, the North Carolina Family Court Advisory Commission, with the approval of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, issued guidelines for parties to parenting plans or custody orders to encourage cooperation and consistency, reduce friction, and ensure the best interest of the child(ren) as much as possible, including:
- Denial of Parenting Time. The spread of COVID-19, in and of itself, is not a reason to deny parenting time. Unless otherwise ordered by the court, parents are considered fit to care for their child(ren) and make decisions regarding the day-to-day aspects of parenting while the child(ren) are in their care.
- Supervised Parenting Time. If parenting time is ordered to be supervised and the supervisor is unavailable due to pandemic-related issues or other government orders, parenting time should be conducted virtually via videoconferencing (e.g., WebEx, Skype, or FaceTime) or by telephone.
- Exchanges. During the exchange of the child(ren), all parties should follow the CDC guidelines for limiting the spread of the virus, which may mean choosing an alternate location for the exchanges that has fewer people congregating and less touching of public items (e.g., moving exchanges from a restaurant to a grocery store parking lot).
- Parenting Time in Public Places. If the parenting plan states that parenting time will occur in a public place, parenting time should continue at locations that are permitted under Governor Cooper's order and in accordance with health and safety guidelines, such as a large park. If following these orders and guidelines is not possible, parenting time should be conducted virtually via videoconferencing (e.g., WebEx, Skype, or FaceTime) or by telephone.
- Definition of Spring Break, Summer Break, Vacation, and Holidays. While the schools are closed, parenting time shall continue as if the child(ren) are still attending school in accordance with the regular school calendar of the relevant district.
- Safety-Related Issues. If a parent or party with custody or visitation rights is diagnosed with COVID-19 or displays symptoms related to COVID-19, or a member of his or her household is diagnosed with or displays symptoms related to COVID-19, the other party should be notified as soon as possible.
- Transparency. Unless the parties are restrained from communicating by a court order, parents are encouraged to communicate about precautions they are taking to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure the safety of the child(ren). A parent is not permitted to deny parenting time based upon the other parent's unwillingness to discuss their precautionary measures taken, or a parent's belief that the other parent's precautions are insufficient.
Child custody matters are difficult and emotional in the best of times. With our current crisis, it is even more important parents do not take these issues lightly. If you or someone you know need assistance with a child custody matter, please contact one of our family law attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC. You can do this by calling 704-370-2828 or send us your information on our Contact Us tab.