Co-Parenting in the Pandemic: Agreements on “Ground Rules” for Social Distancing

In Custody, Family Law

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presents a special challenge to parents who are divorced or in the process of getting divorced. Social distancing, sheltering in place, and keeping yourself and your children safe is challenging enough without the added complications that necessarily come when a child spends time in two different homes. What happens when you are following all of the public health authorities’ directives to stay at home and practice social distancing, but your ex-spouse is not? You may have a custody agreement or court order setting out an access schedule for your spouse and children. But what can you do when sending your children to spend time with an ex-spouse who refuses to practice social distancing puts both you and your children at risk of exposure to the coronavirus?

We have been working with a number of clients navigating this issue, trying to help both parents agree on “ground rules” to protect themselves and their children. To do so, we have prepared agreements in which both parents commit to following the orders, protocols, and guidelines concerning hygiene, social distancing, and staying at home that have been issued by Governor Cuomo, the New York State Department of Emergency Management, the Centers for Disease Control, and President Trump.

Agreements are drafted to meet each client’s unique circumstances. Generally they require not only that the parents themselves comply with the public health directives concerning COVID-19, they also require that both parents ensure that other people in their respective households and the children comply with those directives. Both parents must agree not to attend or host any social gatherings, and they agree to shelter in place at their homes, leaving only for essential tasks or outdoor activities that can be done while maintaining social distancing.

The agreement also requires that if either parent (or person in their household) experiences symptoms of COVID-19, that parent will immediately notify the other parent and cease contact with the children until he or she recovers and tests negative, and has met other criteria established by public health authorities to ensure that parent is no longer contagious.

These agreements are legally-binding and can be enforced in court, if necessary. In fact, the agreements are in the form of stipulations that can be filed with the Court, signed by a judge and converted into an Order punishable by contempt if a party fails to comply.

All of this can be done remotely. We can consult with clients by telephone or video to discuss their particular circumstances and the benefits of an agreement addressing shared parenting time during this pandemic. Governor Cuomo has even issued a special Executive Order allowing us to witness and notarize your signature by video, and the fully-executed agreement can be submitted to the Court electronically.

If you believe that your ex-spouse is too stubborn or misinformed about the dangers of COVID-19 to act responsibly and observe shelter-in-place and social distancing directives, we can advise you on the best alternate course of action to protect yourself and your children.

Finally, medical personnel, first responders, and parents working in essential industries may simply not be able to stay at home or adhere to social distancing guidelines. Managing that reality and the demands of those parents’ jobs while keeping children, family members and ex-spouses safe will require a different approach specific to the unique circumstances of each family. We have been working with numerous clients facing the specific challenges that the pandemic presents for individuals who are on the front lines of COVID-19, but who are also parents. Using flexible, creative approaches, we have successfully advised clients on temporary arrangements that allow for parenting time but also prevent exposing their children to the coronavirus.

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