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Child Custody and COVID-19

Child Custody

Are you a parent who is trying to navigate the new world thrust upon us by COVID-19? Are you doing that while being a co-parent or juggling a child custody order? COVID-19 has changed everyone’s lives and created special challenges for parents dealing with family law issues and child custody orders.

First, if you are currently involved in a divorce, or a child custody suit, the courts in Harris County, Fort Bend County, and the surrounding counties are all open and functioning, but in different ways. Many of the family courts are conducting both in person hearings and online Zoom hearings. Bottom line, if you have an ongoing family law case, your court should be moving things along soon, and if you want to file a family law case, the courts are open and accepting new cases. You can find a FULL RUNDOWN of the status of the courts, recent emergency orders, and more on our blog

Second, many parents want to know if they have to exchange their kids with their co-parent during COVID-19, and the answer is YES. Orders issued by both the Harris County and Fort Bend County judges, as well as the Supreme Court of Texas, make clear that “possession of and access to a child shall not be affected by any shelter-in-place order.” That means possession and access to kids should continue as if there is no virus. So, what can parents do if they are afraid to exchange their kids?

Start by communicating with the other parent, in writing, any concerns. An email works great for this. If using co-parenting software like Our Family Wizard or Talking Parents, use that. If a parent wants to suspend visitation during the pandemic, they should explain the circumstances and respectfully lay out the reasons in writing, EVEN if they don’t believe the other parent will agree. Parents should offer scheduled make up time in their communication. Hopefully, this approach will work.

If a parent wants visitation and exchanges during the pandemic, send a written communication encouraging them to follow appropriate health and safety procedures. Parents need to talk to their child about proper health practices. Parents could ask their co-parent to alert them if their child starts to feel ill. Another idea is to request that co-parents take a child’s temperature every day and let parents know if a child starts to run a fever.

If parents refuse to part with their child during the pandemic, they should understand they may be violating their custody order. If parents feel their child’s health or wellbeing is in true danger, they should discuss their options with an attorney, and consider filing something with the court so they aren’t held in contempt. A co-parent could bring an enforcement action for denial of possession and parents might have to part with their child and pay attorney’s fees, so parents should be very careful and consult with an attorney on the best course of action for their particular case.

Finally, many parents have been laid off, furloughed, or are finding it very difficult to find work right now. What do parents do if they owe child support but can’t pay due to COVID-19? Unless a court orders otherwise, parents still owe their child support obligations. However, there are steps that struggling parents can take.

Parents should communicate their employment situation to their co-parent in writing. If parents have proof of their employment situation, they should include that in the communication. Many people will receive government stimulus checks, parents should consider using those funds to pay child support when they receive it. If parents haven’t considered applying for unemployment, they should do so. Showing that one has done everything they can to find new employment or receive benefits is very important in these situations.

Parents should seek every avenue possible to pay their child support before they go to court to lower what they owe. Parents can’t go to jail for not paying a credit card bill, but parents can go to jail if they don’t pay child support. Parents should seek every opportunity to limit other expenses. For example, many mortgage companies are allowing deferrals of your mortgage payments. The same is true of student loans. Take advantage of those and other similar opportunities. Having said that, nothing will stop child support payments from coming due and accruing interest, so to avoid an enforcement hearing being brought, parents should consult with an attorney and bring a modification as soon as possible.

If you find yourself in the tough position of facing a divorce or dealing with a child custody order during COVID-19, be proactive, educate your child, communicate with your co-parent, and when in doubt, seek legal advice to fully explore your options.