CoParenting in Massachusetts during the COVID-19 Pandemic: What You Need to Know

Co-parenting even in the best of times is challenging. Add a global pandemic to the mix and it can feel nearly impossible. However, there are guidelines already in place to help you coparent in a respectful and logical way. In this article we will also give you some extra tips to help you coparent positively during these confusing times.

General Guidelines Issued by Chief Justice John D. Casey

Chief Justice John D. Casey of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts has explained that parenting orders are not stayed during the pandemic. He also says it is important that children spend time with both parents as this is an important time to maintain family relationships. Therefore, you have a plan in place- and that plan has just as much weight and authority as usual. Continue to follow your parenting order and remember that if you violate it, you may make yourself vulnerable to claims of contempt of court. Even if there is a state of emergency, this does not automatically change your child custody order.

Chief Justice John D. Casey has explained that if a parent must self-quarantine or is restricted from having contact with others due to public health concerns, both parents are encouraged to cooperate so that parenting time can occur in alternative forms, such as through video calls or regular phone calls.

Your parenting order may contain specific language about when the other parent has the child. Even if schools are physically closed, if your child is participating in education through a virtual means, you will still observe the typical school calendar.

Do not try to make any changes to the existing order without the other parent’s consent, preferably in writing. A court order is not legally changed until the judge changes it. If you think that you need to make changes to the order to respond to the current situation, contact an attorney

Modifications to Parenting Time and Child Custody Related Court Orders

If your visitation is being prohibited, you believe that a change in custody is necessary to protect your child, you want to block the other parent from traveling to a dangerous location during the pandemic or you otherwise need to change your custody order, you must contact an attorney who can provide you with practical legal advice and assist you in filing an emergency or suggest a suitable strategy.

Typically, to modify a child custody order in Massachusetts, you must establish the following:

  1. A material and substantial change in the circumstances of the parties has occurred since the last parenting order was put in place;
  2. Modification is in the best interests of your child

You may also need to request a modification to an order for spousal support or child support. Many people have been economically impacted by COVID-19 as social distancing measures have been put in place, businesses have temporarily closed, or large gatherings have been cancelled. You are still required to comply with the existing order until a modification has been ordered.

Tips to Help You Coparent during a Pandemic

These are unprecedented times. However, maintaining stability and routine is important to the parent/child relationship at all times, and to reducing your child's growing anxiety over loss of their routine. Do your best to keep up with any typical routine with your children to the extent possible. Here are some additional tips to coparent during this crisis:

Keep Calm

With the number of infected people rising every day, it can be easy to become distraught and overcome with worry. However, your children need you to be calm and logical during a time of crisis. Your children will look to you for guidance on how to act during this time, so it is pivotal that you serve as a positive role model for them.

While taking care of your children is important, it is also important that you take care of yourself during this stressful time. Try to relieve some of the anxiety caused by the situation by taking a bath, reading, meditating, taking a walk or enjoying favorite pastimes. You have to take care of your own mental health before you can properly take care of anyone else.

Communicate with the Other Parent

These are scary times. The other parent may think that you are trying to take advantage of the situation, so be sure that you clearly state your concerns and communicate in a respectful manner. For example, if you do not want your child to travel to another country during the pandemic, you may want to talk about this concern well before any plans are made. If plans were made previously, it should be obvious to the other parent (especially given the travel restrictions in place) that any travel during this time should be cancelled for the health and safety of everyone. Discuss the dangers that are currently present and what has happened in other countries. Talk about alternatives, such as trading time in the future or helping to fund a trip after the coronavirus scare is no longer upon us. Communication around this issue is key to finding a resolution without involving the court.

If travel to a country that is a "hot spot" is a serious concern at this time and you are in the midst of a high conflict divorce, existing court orders should contain specific language regarding travel with children. However, court orders do not often contain language regarding pandemics or emergency situations. If your co-parent seeks to take your children to a COVID-19 hotspot, court intervention may be necessary. Due to the increasing dangers of traveling during this time and potential for exposure to COVID-19, you should speak with your attorney to determine if an emergency filing to restrict the child(ren)'s travel with the other parent is necessary at this time to prevent any possible harm.

Start to prepare a plan to deal with situations before they arise. What will you do if your child becomes ill? What doctor or health care facility should he or she visit? What happens if you are exposed to the virus? Can you have visitation if you must self-quarantine and in that case, how will you and your co-parent handle video conferences or facetime so the quarantined parent can still have some virtual time with the children?

It is also important to discern the difference between ungrounded fears and real concerns. The other parent may be worried about your child being exposed by their siblings or other members in your household. Walk through these concerns together and talk about ways you are each limiting possible exposure.

Comply with All Public Health Recommendations

The other parent will be more likely to work with you if he or she knows that you are taking the situation seriously and following all public health recommendations, including:

  • Wash your hands often
  • Maintain social distance of at least six feet between you and other people
  • Avoid public gatherings of 10 or more people
  • Clean surfaces frequently with antibacterial cleaners
  • Wear a mask when in a grocery store or other public place

Reign in the Media

As an adult, you know how disheartening an endless cycle of news coverage can be during a time of crisis. This is even more so for young children. While it is important to underline the seriousness of the situation, try to limit the amount of time that children are on mobile devices and exposed to this type of anxiety-inducing coverage.

Stick to a Schedule

Children thrive on stability and routine. Try to stick to the original parenting plan as much as possible. Additionally, stick to your regular routine when the children are in your care. If your children are school-aged, use their typical school day as a guide to better structure their time. Be sure to include breaks and creative time.

Get Creative

As everyone is adapting to a “new normal,” it is important that you consider creative ways to ensure a positive relationship with each parent during this pandemic. Some options may include:

  • Having conversations over video services like Facetime, Facebook Messenger or Skype
  • Sending emails, texts, or letters, drawings and cards through the mail
  • Reading a book to your child over the phone
  • Playing a board game over video chat
  • Playing online video games together

You may also have additional difficulties in how to spend time with your children as restaurants, amusement parks, local parks and other public places have all closed down. Some activities to pass the time during this pandemic include:

  • Read a book together
  • Listen to audio books
  • Start a garden - many local garden shops are still delivering!
  • Take a hike
  • Take an online class
  • Exercise
  • Plan and prepare healthy meals together
  • Play board games (who doesn’t like the game of Clue?)
  • Build a fort
  • Build things together, such as block sets or activity sets
  • Write a skit or act out a play
  • Use technology to connect with long distance relatives
  • Help your kids with homework and distance learning assignments
  • Watch classic movies
  • Explore museums and aquariums online
  • Prepare bucket lists and start checking off some of the boxes
  • Do crafts together, such as drawing, painting, making jewelry, making slime or colored dough, or houses out of cardboard tubes
  • Here are 125 activities more fun quarantine activities

Let this current crisis foster your creativity and make you glad for the extra family time!

Arrange for Makeup Time

Family courts expect parents – especially those with shared custody – to work together and make reasonable accommodations to handle disruptions to the typical parenting schedule. Additionally, not acting in a reasonable fashion now may be used against you later.

Understand that the other parent does not want to lose time with his or her child. Try to provide makeup time for the other parent, even if your parenting order does not strictly require it. Many challenges presented by the coronavirus that affect coparenting can be resolved through the cooperation of the parents and without having to resort to going to court.

For example, if the other parent had to self-quarantine for two weeks, you could allow the parent a two-week period of visitation later to make up for this lost time. With schools closed, it may be easier now more than ever to make such accommodations.

Exercise Empathy

This is a stressful situation for everyone and we are all affected in different ways. Some parents have to work extra hours to make up for short staff amid health concerns. Some have been laid off or given reduced hours. Some are at greater risk to their health and safety due to age or underlying medical conditions and must take extra precautions to safeguard their health. Try to be understanding.

Find Out More

The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and affecting people in new ways every day. New court schedules and procedures may be implemented in the coming months. Learn more about how COVID-19 may affect your divorce and do not hesitate to reach out to Mavrides Law if you have questions about your particular situation. We are here to help during this time of crisis and can discuss your situation through a video-chat consultation so you can stay safely at home.

To speak with a lawyer about divorce or MA alimony matter, contact Mavrides Law in Boston, MA. To schedule an in-depth initial consultation, call 617-723-9900 or contact the firm at info@mavrideslaw.com

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