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COVID-19 is rough on divorced families—and their lawyers too

Worried parents who want reassurance regarding how to handle shared custody arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic are bombarding North Carolina family law attorneys with questions.

Their advice: Follow orders, both those from family law judges and those from Gov. Roy Cooper; work together to keep the needs and health of their children first; and be ultra-conscious of what constitutes a real problem and what doesn’t. 

“We have seen an overwhelming number of people who have concerns about custody exchanges and children sharing households during COVID-19,” said Lauren Quinn, a family law attorney with Ward and Smith in New Bern. 

“Many are legitimately concerned about how to balance the competing interests of keeping their children safe while complying with court orders. We are seeing many instances where the parents are unable to agree and, in those instances, the order in place is what must be followed. We can’t tell our clients what they want to hear; we have to tell them you have to get the other side to agree, follow the custody order and hope for the best.”

Many judges have been trying to help attorneys as much as they can. Wake County District Court Judge Christine Walczyk sent a memo to family court attorneys on March 30 reiterating that Cooper’s stay-at-home order has an exemption to parents who share custody of their children. Traveling between residences for child custody or visitation is listed as an essential activity under Cooper’s order.

“The most important thing you can do during this crisis is to encourage your clients to work together with their children’s best interest in mind, to have a plan in place in case someone gets sick or must be quarantined, and to mediate any disputes over custody exchanges such that court intervention is not required,” Walczyk said. 

Scott Trout, an attorney with Cordell & Cordell in Raleigh, said that he is advising clients to stay in line with court orders and custody agreements and to avoid reinventing the wheel. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of time-sharing. He said that in some jurisdictions there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain as though school were still in session.

Some parents are arguing over what is still appropriate for their children while staying at their respective homes and what’s currently off-limits, where one parent may be still having playdates or “taking too many trips to the grocery store,” said Mariana Godwin of Barefoot Family Law in Raleigh.

The key is advising them to find practical solutions to ensure that the children and both families are safe while respecting the relationships between the children and their shared families, Quinn said. 

Godwin has a client who recently returned home from a trip to Disney World with her children. Soon after, she became sick and was quarantined with her children for two weeks. (A test came back negative for COVID-19). She shared custody with the children’s  father, so when their quarantine was up, the children stayed with their father for two weeks to make up for their lost time with him.

“It was a great show of parenting,” Godwin said. “Parents can work together so parents aren’t missing out on time with the kids because of these unforeseen circumstances.”

But if the parents can’t come to agreement, Quinn said her firm’s attorneys are firm with their clients on whether situations warrant emergency intervention from the courts. While her firm’s attorneys want to err on the side of caution, they also want to ensure that their clients understand that only true emergencies and domestic violence can be addressed through the courts while they are operating in limited space.

Beyond the current situation, the pandemic could have lasting effects on relationships, Trout said. While his law offices are receiving numerous calls every day from parents regarding custody issues, there are a multitude of other areas that the pandemic can and will affect once it is over.

“This is an extreme time–people are losing their jobs and spending 24 hours a day together,” Godwin said. “They are worrying about food and money and their kids. It’s a lot to handle, and it takes a toll on families and marriage. It will be interesting to see what happens.”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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