We are living in unprecedented times. Our movement is restricted; our workplaces have been emptied; and our children are being home-schooled for the remainder of the school year. To say that stress levels are high for many individuals is a severe understatement.
If you share custody of your child, how can this affect your parenting plan? Luckily, the Governor and many counties’ superior courts have offered guidance on this topic. Many parenting plans regarding children of school age are modeled around their school schedules. The superior courts of multiple counties in the Atlanta area have issued guidance stating that parenting time shall continue to be governed by the relevant school schedule (to the extent indicated in the applicable order/parenting plan), regardless of whether the child is attending school at this time or not. For example, if your child’s Spring Break was scheduled to fall from April 6, 2020 through April 10, 2020, the parent designated to have Spring Break in 2020 should still have the child during that week. For a child below school-age, continue to follow your parenting plan as much as is feasible. Some parents will find that their parenting plan is simply not viable under the circumstances. If both you and the other parent agree to temporarily change the parenting plan, make sure the new plan is in writing and know that the new plan will not be enforceable through the court system (only an order signed by a judge can change a parenting plan).
Additionally, Governor Brian Kemp released an Executive Order on Friday, April 3 in the wake of state-wide shelter in place orders. Exercising parenting time, and the transportation of children to and from parenting time, are considered “essential activities” for purposes of the order. Therefore, you should proceed with parenting time as scheduled in your parenting plan. The shelter in place order is no reason for you to deny parenting time, or be denied parenting time, absent other circumstances.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), an organization of well-regarded family lawyers across the country, also released suggested guidelines for parents during this crisis. Their advice was as follows:
- Be Healthy. Listen to the CDC. Wash your hands, clean surfaces and wipe down items frequently touched. Keep yourself informed with the latest facts on the virus – do not believe all of the hype on social media.
- Be Mindful. Be honest with your children, but provide them with age-appropriate information. Make sure they know that life will return to normal in time. This too shall pass.
- Be Compliant. Follow court orders and your custody arrangement as much as possible. If the superior court in your county has issued an order declaring that parenting plans shall be followed as if school were still in session, follow those orders.
- Be Creative. The AAML recognizes that certain things will change under these novel circumstances. Some parents may need to work longer hours. Some parents may be out of work. Some parents may work in healthcare and you may mutually decide that it is best for that parent to not see the children at this time due to COVID-19 exposure. Be understanding, and encourage the child to virtually spend time with the other parent if physical contact is not safe.
- Be Transparent. Both parents should be honest with each other about any possible exposure or any symptoms of COVID-19. This applies to both parents and the children. Being evasive about these topics will only hurt the children in the end.
- Be Generous. Be open to reasonable accommodations to make up for lost parenting time due to current circumstances. Keep in mind that your current behavior could be analyzed by a family judge in the future, and being flexible and generous will most likely help you.
- Be Understanding. Issues with parenting time and the payment of child support may arise. Many parents will lose their jobs or receive pay cuts at work. A parent obligated to pay child support should pay the other parent as much as possible, and the other parent should try to be understanding if that amount is reduced from the full obligation. Parents are spending a ton of time with their children right now, and children absorb their parents’ actions. 
What should your takeaway be? Be as flexible as you can be while keeping your children safe. Since none of us have been through a global pandemic before, none of us truly know the best way to handle it. Follow your parenting plan as much as is feasible under your unique circumstances, but be open to changes your children’s other parent may need to make to the parenting plan. If you have concerns about your unique circumstances or feel your parenting plan needs to be modified, our experienced team of lawyers is ready to assist you during this difficult time.