Co-parenting through COVID-19

By Amanda S. Mueller
Family Law Attorney

Under normal circumstances, divorce and co-parenting can be a struggle.  Uncertain times like we are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic can make the struggle worse.  On the other hand, it could also be an opportunity for divorced parents to put things into perspective and put petty squabbles and one-upmanship into the rear-view mirror.

South Carolina family law attorneys are fielding numerous questions from clients concerning the coronavirus pandemic and co-parenting and custody orders.

Many custodial parents want to suspend child visitation during the pandemic. On the other hand, some non-custodial parents want to extend visitation time due to concerns over the suspended academic school schedule, the custodial parent’s employment in the medical profession, the number of individuals living in the home, etc.  Can the non-custodial parent refuse to return the child if the custodial parent is a nurse working at the hospital?  Can a custodial parent refuse visitation because the non-custodial parent works at a busy grocery store? The number of possible scenarios is endless.

The Family Court of South Carolina is currently closed to all cases except for emergencies, and there has not been much guidance from the South Carolina Courts in this regard. While the court will eventually open again, there’s no way to foresee how the coronavirus closure will affect family law, both now and into the future.

So, I’ve looked to other states to see what guidance they have provided.  Several have weighed in in family law issues, at least for the short term.

On March 16, 2020, the Supreme Court of Texas issued “Second Emergency Order Regarding The COVID-19 State of Disaster.” The order made it clear that in cases where school schedules determine custody and visitation, the school schedule as originally published will remain the guideline. School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic won’t change child custody and visitation.

On March 21, 2020, the Governor of Illinois issued Executive Order in Response to COVID-19 (No. 8) that ordered people to stay home except for “essential activities.” He defined “essential travel” as travel required by a court order under a custody agreement.

And on March 17, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court issued a statement making it clear that all child custody and parenting time orders remain in force. “Only a new court order can change that.  Parents should continue to follow their court order.”

Then the Michigan Supreme Court takes it one step further and really gets into the heart of the matter – how this entire situation is affecting the children.

“If future government decisions restrict travel or, if a child’s safety is an issue, parents should work together to keep the child’s access to both parents as close to the normal arrangement as possible. Remember that children might also be nervous about current events and need reassurance from parents.  If it is necessary to share parental responsibilities in ways different than the court order provides, parents should cooperate with each other to further the child’s best interests.  If parents are not able to agree between themselves how to do this, their court order continues to control what they should do.”

Reading this statement from the Michigan Supreme Court, it really struck me how unprecedented and life-changing of a moment in time we are living through right now.  Our children are watching our every move and listening to our every word, now more so than ever. Our children will tell the stories of how their families handled the next few weeks, months, and maybe even longer. What story do you want them to tell about you?

Amanda S. Mueller is a family law attorney at Burnette Shutt & McDaniel in Columbia, SC. You can reach her at AMueller@burnetteshutt.law or 803.904.7928.