Despite having been divorced for 20 years, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis made news recently after sharing photos of their family’s shared pandemic lockdown. Clad in matching pajamas, the long-split couple certainly seems to be a model of co-parenting goals.
However, despite the happy images, co-parenting is a significant challenge right now for many families. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown daily routines up into the air for the majority of Americans. This is especially difficult for families who are co-parenting children together. Not only do the realities of a global pandemic make it difficult to dispassionately assess risk for children, but there are also a lot of restrictions on public activities with stay-at-home orders.
What have the New Jersey courts said about visitation agreements and stay-at-home orders?
On March 21, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy enacted shelter-in-place order for residents. This order stated that only essential workers were permitted to go to work and that people were to leave their homes only to perform essential activities.
Essential activities were defined as “obtaining essential goods or services, seeking medical attention, visiting family or close friends, reporting to work, and engaging in outdoor activities.”
Family court guidance
While this order is among the more strict in the country, it didn’t require courts to relax or rescind existing court orders for custody and parenting time. In guidance established by the New Jersey Court of Family Law, families co-parenting minor children were guided to continue current custody schedules.
You might be wondering how this guidance lines up with the shelter-in-place orders. After all, exchanging children as per custody schedules is fundamentally different than running to the grocery store to buy milk and bread. It’s understandable to feel that keeping a child at home is the safest course of action!
However, remember that the shelter-in-place order includes “visiting family and close friends” as an essential activity. This guidance doesn’t refer to casual social calls, but talks more about essential visits to ensure the health and wellness of others.
If neither you nor your ex has been exposed to the virus and you are both following all the precautions put forth by the CDC and WHO, it’s advisable to try to continue with your regular custody exchanges.
While you may be worried about unnecessary risks and how your ex is handling things, remember that they also still have a right to see your child and your child still has a right to see their other parent.
What have other states said?
Other courts in other states have had a wide range of responses to child custody agreements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally speaking, however, courts haven’t been deviating from previous child custody orders.
How can we handle custody agreements?
The main words to remember in this situation is communication and compromise.
Keep a running dialogue between the two of you – if possible – about your own health and exposures, your expectations for your child’s safety, and concerns you might have. If you or your ex work in essential jobs or have had other exposures to COVID-19, you may want to consider an alternate custody schedule or come up with virtual ways to give your child access to their other parent.
If you and your ex have struggled with communication in the past, now is a good opportunity to get professional support through a mediator. Mediators can work remotely with you both to help you keep conversations productive.
What if my ex won’t keep up their end of the child custody arrangement?
Keep in mind that if you or your ex don’t comply with your court order – as in a manner you haven’t mutually agreed upon – there may be repercussions. Courts are still in operation, even if courthouses are closed.
A motion can still be filed to address violations of custody and visitation orders. These issues will likely be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the circumstances.
What if we usually exchange our children in a public place? Is this still allowed?
Yes, this is still allowed. Public places are still accessible for essential activities and exchange of children for custody agreements is considered an essential activity. However, visits to these spaces should be limited to just the exchange of children and not other social activities.
Navigating the unexpected circumstances of a global pandemic isn’t something that was written into any child custody agreement!
Figuring out your best path forward with your co-parent will require compromise, consideration and patience.
Our experienced family law attorneys are available for remote consultations. If you need support in communicating or coming to a better solution for your family, we’d love to hear from you.