We've received a lot of questions about shelter at home, quarantine, and parenting plans. Here's what you need to know. In general, you must follow your current parenting plan during any shelter-in-place order during the COVID19/Coronavirus crisis. Period. There will always be exceptions, but here's what you need to know.
1. Your parenting plan is a Court order. This is true in Idaho and Washington, where we work, and in many other states (please consult an attorney in your state if you are unsure). That means, if you do not follow your parenting plan, you are violating a Court order. The court doesn't enforce parenting plans unless one parent comes to the court and asks for enforcement, but technically not following a parenting plan means you are in contempt of court. This is civil contempt (versus criminal). Civil contempt does have penalties, including fines and possible jail time (jail time is a severe, and rare civil penalty). Your parenting plan is a court order whether or not it came from a mediation, a trial, a hearing, or an agreement. The only non-court ordered parenting plans exist between parents who never chose to file their parenting plan in an appropriate court. Those are not enforceable, and they are never a good idea.
2. What if the other parent will not give me my child(ren) as the parenting plan requires because of COVID_19? Again, this is technically a violation of the parenting plan. Document all the communications between you and the other parent. Save emails and texts, take notes of oral communications. Do not record any phone calls in Washington state unless you have actual, spoken consent from the other parent, as it is illegal (an actual crime in a two-party consent state). But, you are unlikely to be able to enforce the agreement and make the other parent provide visitation right now because courts in Washington and Idaho are only hearing emergency motions. Emergency motions in family law are things like domestic violence. Absent that, you can file a motion with a court, but it is unlikely to be heard until May in either state. Courts will not look kindly on a motion for contempt that is based on things like slightly late drop off or pick up - quite honestly, the court will view you as a jerk for doing that. So stop doing this during this pandemic and at all other times. Unless your parenting plan has a strict rule about how long you need to wait for drop off or pick up and unless the other parent is violating that regularly (like, every drop off and pick up), you are wasting the court's time.
3. Be reasonable. Try to be flexible with the other parent with school closures, school at home, and work from home. It is always a good idea to be reasonable, even if the other side is unreasonable. Take the high road; go high when they go low. If you are able to accommodate schedule changes with the other parent for the purpose of COVID_19/Coronavirus circumstances, then do it. Always assume that any email or text message you send will be read by a judge. A judge will not take kindly to you behaving badly, calling names, or being unreasonable, even if the other parent started it. Be an adult for your child, especially now. Adults do not name call or curse at the parent of their children.
4. What parenting plan do I follow? It is super unlikely that your parenting plan has a residential/visitation/custody schedule that says what you need to do in a pandemic. Since that is so unlikely, follow the parenting plan that best fits the circumstances. If your child is in school, even if s/he is doing school online at home, follow the school year plan. If your child is not school age, follow the current plan. If there's some exception in your plan that you reasonably believe applies, follow that plan.
5. What if the other parent is not social distancing or practicing other COVID_19/Coronavirus guidelines? This is tricky. In general, you still cannot withhold visitation from the other parent because they are not taking Coronavirus seriously. There's no law in Washington or Idaho at least that would allow you to keep your child(ren) from the other parent because they are not washing their hands enough. You likely do not have much say in this barring some extraordinary provision in your parenting plan.
6. What if there is violence towards me or my child? Immediately call the police/local law enforcement. Courts are still hearing protection orders, and they will provide you protection. Contact your local county courthouse immediately if you or your children are victims of violence.
7. What about child support? Like a parenting plan, child support is a court order. So, if you must pay it, keep paying it. If you have been laid off or are working less, unfortunately you are unlikely to be able to go back to court right now for a modification of what you must pay (again, this is not one of the emergency categories in Washington & Idaho that courts are limiting hearings to for now), so pay what you can. If you make payments that are less, absent a written agreement from the other parent, you may be responsible for any back support amounts that are not paid plus interest. If your financial changes are permanent, you will be able to go back to court to modify your child support payments, but be patient until the Courts re-open. If the other parent is not paying you, you can file a motion to enforce a child support order, but again, it is not getting heard at least until May in Washington or Idaho. If back support is needed, it will be collected at a later date if you can't get a hearing date before May.
If you aren't in Washington or Idaho, contact a lawyer in your state. If you need help in Washington or Idaho, contact us. Stay safe!
Our firm is pleased to announced that our founding principal has again been honored with a Pro Bono Publico Service Commendation from the Washington State Bar Association for 2018. Our firm completed hundreds of hours of pro bono services for clients who simply cannot afford attorneys in civil matters like family law, landlord tenant disputes, and consumer questions.
If you are in need of free legal aid and you meet the income requirements in Washington State (within 200% of federal poverty guidelines or $51,500 for a family of four using 2019 numbers). If you fit this and need a lawyer for a civil matter in Washington, you must contact the CLEAR hotline 1-888-201-1014 for intake or complete the intake online at www.nwjustice.org.
If you don't know if you qualify or have questions about where to go in Washington (or Idaho), we are always happy to answer your questions about who to contact.
All blog posts are written by members of the GIANTlegal team, unless otherwise indicated. Information contained in our blog does not constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.