It goes without saying that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is majorly impacting Pennsylvania’s businesses, and its resident’s day to day lives. Over the past week our firm has received multiple calls from concerned parents who want to know what their options are for exchanging custody with parents who are in a different state, or meet in public locations for supervised custody and exchanges.
There is no easy answer. Judges expect that their Orders be followed once issued, however they are also understanding of when emergencies arise that do not allow an Order to be followed. Absent an alternative visitation agreement in writing, you should make every attempt to continue following your custody order, so long as it is safe to do so. Judges will have to weigh if a parent should be in contempt if they fail to follow a custody order during the COVID-19 outbreak and requested quarantine restrictions. The reality of the situation is that even the Courts themselves has issued notices that hearing, trials and education programs are canceled, and have closed their doors for the first time in decades to any save emergency Protection from Abuse cases.
As discussed in our recent blog titled Family Courts in Allegheny County Amidst the Coronavirus, and now the surrounding counties in Pennsylvania, such as Westmoreland, Washington, Butler, Beaver, Greene and more have issued requirements for all non-essential businesses to close, and for its citizens to self-quarantine.
With so much uncertainty as to when the advisement to self-quarantine will end, there are important questions all parents with custody issues have. Here, we try to address a few:
Is the school closure considered a “school/spring break”, where I am entitled to or required to exchange custody with the other parent?
The answer is not simple, however it is our position that the current closing of school in Pennsylvania is not considered a school/ spring break in regard to custody provisions where the other parent is entitled to additional time during school breaks. If the parties can agree to extend custody time during the current closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they are entitled to do so. However, our position is that it is not required.
Will the Judge hold me in contempt of court if I do not follow the custody order regarding exchanges?
Judges base their decision on if a party is in contempt of a court order regarding custody if the parent withholding custody is doing so unilaterally and not in the best interest of the child, and purposeful disobeying the custody order. In light of the restrictions on large group meetings, recommendations to self-quarantine and many non-essential businesses closing, or only permitting take-out orders, a parent who chooses to keep the parties children in the home may be considered in their best interest. Pennsylvania has not yet determined if the COVID-19 virus would be considered a just reason for withholding custody. As such, the Judge would have to determine, based on the specific facts of the parties’ circumstances, whether a parent who did not send their child for an exchange should be held in contempt. A good attorney will be able to argue on your behalf why it was in the child’s best interest to remain in quarantine, and for the custody exchanges to be suspended during the COVID-19 outbreak. So long as a parent does not use the COVID019 outbreak to take advantage of the other parent, the likelihood of being held in contempt is lessened.
If I can still safely exchange custody, should I?
Yes. You have an Order or a status quo where custody exchanges are established, and should be followed. Take additional precautions, ensure that you are in communication with the other party and that you both are aware of the dangers. Establish a plan in advance in case of possible exposure, and most importantly, be reasonable as much as possible. If you typically exchange in a public place, make arrangements to do so in a secure private location, or a place that is not heavily populated to cut down on the possibility of contamination. Wash your hand before and directly after exchanges.
What other options should I suggest instead of leaving the house with the child for a custody exchange?
When you have experience representation, your attorney can negotiate with opposing counsel or the other party the options the parties have in place of leaving the house. Ideas such as daily skype/ facetime messaging and a promise of makeup time once the danger of the COVID-19 virus has passed is one option that has been suggested.
When can we anticipate our case being rescheduled?
At this time, there is no known date as to when Pennsylvania Courthouses will reschedule canceled hearing, trials or other family court matters. There has been no direction as to how these matters would be rescheduled, or how long the courts anticipate staying closed. Working with experienced attorneys will ensure that you are updated regularly. Firms such as Lisa Marie Vari & Associates has a team working round the clock to gather information regarding court closures, and updating their clients accordingly.
If you are a parent who has concerns about how the Coronavirus (COVID-19) will affect your established or pending custody, divorce child support, spousal support, adoption or other family law matters, contact the knowledgeable Pennsylvania family law attorneys at Lisa Marie Vari & Associates to schedule a no-obligation telephone consultation today. You may complete our online contact questionnaire or call our office directly at 412-281-9906.
Be sure to check back regularly for updates on the COVID-19 virus and how it affects your family law matters.