The Scottish bard Robert Burns once wrote, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This truth has been readily apparent throughout the last few months, as the global pandemic has created disruption and chaos in every aspect of society.
Many divorced couples who share children together are suddenly finding themselves in need of making adjustments to the parenting plan they had put in place before COVID-19 changed everything.
Problematic Scenarios with Parenting Plans
Right now, many parents are experiencing job loss or are needing to work different shifts or varied hours. This could mean they are not available during their scheduled time to watch the children.
Additionally, some parents are now experiencing 24/7 responsibility for their children, with schools and daycares being closed. They are having to learn how to homeschool their children while simultaneously juggling their full-time jobs remotely. That is a lot to have on one’s plate!
Another concern is daycare and summer camps–will parents be able to afford them, or will they want to send their children and risk exposure to the virus?
Shared Legal Custody Debates
Most divorced couples have shared legal custody of their children. This is different than physical custody, or who the children live with. Shared legal custody means both parents have a say in any decision-making that pertains to the children. It generally refers to higher-level choices, such as health issues, sports, or college, rather than minor decisions such as whether a child can go to a friend’s house.
The current health crisis is polarizing the country in terms of what steps people think we should take, so it is no surprise that it is also complicating shared legal custody situations. In some cases, parents have actually tried to get Court orders to keep their children away from the other parent if that parent worked in the healthcare industry or was considered at higher risk of contracting the virus.
A common parental clash in “normal times” has been whether children would be allowed to play football, but the topic of sports has a much greater magnitude in times like these. While children certainly need exercise, not all parents are ready to see their children resume youth sports yet. Some parents are not even prepared to see their children return to a traditional classroom in the fall. The raging debates going on across the nation are making their way into families, causing further division and making an already difficult situation even more complex.
Communication is Key
Technically, approved parenting plans are not supposed to be modified without the permission of the Court. Court access is very difficult right now, however, with only emergency cases being seen. No one really knows when the Court schedule will return back to normal and physical access be restored. The Courts are expanding virtual hearings as they work to serve as many people as possible while trying to balance the backlog of cases with new matters. It is slow going. The quickest and most effective approach for modifying parenting plans right now is to work with a Mediator or Collaborative Practitioner.
When I work as a Mediator to help divorcing couples develop a parenting plan, I always encourage them to build flexibility into their agreement using catch-all language. We can certainly include general parameters while still remaining flexible about specifics. It is wise for each party to allow for some flexibility, as it is likely each of them will need to tap into that flexibility at some point down the road. After all, schedules of both parents and children are never cast in stone and are likely to change over time, especially during a pandemic like we are experiencing.
Communication is key during unsettled times like these. Everything is up in the air for everyone. No one is immune. All parties involved will have to step up and do their part to make the parenting arrangement work. Adjustments will likely need to be made as to who is responsible for the children at different times.
If you would like to book an appointment with me to consider adjusting your parenting plan in light of changes brought about by COVID-19 (or due to other changes), please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.