Whether you typically exchange custody every weekend, or your kids travel to their other parent’s for the summer, COVID-19 shut-downs are probably affecting your plans. Do you still need to send your children to their other parent for visitation? Can you drive to a custody exchange without violating Maryland’s “Stay-at-Home Order”? What about if you or your child need to cross state lines?
On March 31, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan issued an executive order instructing everyone in the state to “Stay-at-Home”. The order requires everyone to stay in their places of residence except for certain essential travel, including traveling to work at essential businesses, purchasing groceries or household items, or obtaining medical treatment or supplies.
This Stay-at-Home Order raised many questions for Maryland residents who share custody under a divorce or custody order. Nearly every custody order divides children’s time between households. Co-parents may share custody evenly, with children traveling frequently between homes, or they may offer more limited parenting time to one non-custodial parent. However, absent extreme circumstances, it is rare for children to be completely separated from a parent. With a court order directing custody exchanges and a governor's order saying stay-at-home, parents feel caught in the middle. They may be unsure whether they can or should take their children for visitation.
A close look at the Stay-at-Home order provides a clue: Travel required by a court order counts is deemed essential. A March 27, 2020 statement from the Maryland Judiciary is even more clear and provides some additional guidance. Parents must follow their custody orders unless doing so would violate the Stay-at-Home order. Practically speaking, that means parents should continue their regular visitation schedule. They should also carry their custody order or judgment of absolute divorce with them, just in case they are stopped by a police officer for violating the state’s Stay-at-Home Order.
Even with the Judiciary’s interpretive guidance, some custody orders and exchanges will need to be adjusted due to the COVID-19 response. For example, parents who exchange their children at a school, restaurant, or other public place may find their exchange point closed. Parents exercising supervised visitation through a professional service may find their in-person appointments cancelled. Families where one parent has contracted the virus or works in a high-risk profession may agree that in-person visitation is not safe.
In these cases, the Judiciary encourages parents to jointly agree on alternative arrangements. This may mean finding a different location for the custody exchange, or temporarily allowing a family member to supervise visitation until the visitation center opens again. It may mean temporarily suspending visitation with an infected family member, using electronic or telephone visitation and a plan to make-up parenting time instead.
However, in some cases, parties with complex custody orders may have real safety concerns that make it hard to agree to looser protections. They may also agree changes need to be made, but be unable to settle on a temporary solution. With Maryland court services restricted to only emergency proceedings until June 5, that can leave parents wondering what to do when they can’t reach an agreement on their own.
At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our family law attorneys and mediators have experience working through the collaborative process to help parents identify goals and priorities, keep their disputes out of court, and work together to find a solution. When faced with custody and access challenges, the collaborative process can help, even when filing a motion isn’t an option. While Courts remain closed, we can also help guide direct negotiations with the other parent or their attorney, and by serving as mediator to facilitate discussions which can help parents find some certainty during these uncertain times.
The question of custody exchanges during Coronavirus shut-downs grows even more complicated when there are multiple states involved. When parents live further apart, children tend to have access with the non-custodial parent during summers and school breaks. As the Coronavirus shut-downs are extended and virtual learning becomes a substitute for the traditional school day, parenting time and definitions of parenting time are being affected.
While custody exchanges are deemed “essential” in Maryland’s Stay-at-Home Order, other states may have different mandates. Even when both parents are permitted to travel for visitation, they may not have the same access to plane tickets or be willing to put their children on a plane unsupervised. If children are coming into Maryland from states without Stay-at-Home or Shelter-in-Place orders, there is also the risk that they may bring the virus with them. In those cases, Maryland parents may need to quarantine their children for 14 days to be sure they are healthy. How does this quarantine requirement affect parents that have bi-weekly custody exchanges that require them to cross state lines?
Unfortunately, the Maryland Judiciary’s interpretive guidance did not address these specific circumstances. Parents required to make inter-state custody exchanges may need to speak to a lawyer in both states to learn what executive orders are in place and how they will affect travel. If your summer parenting time will be affected, it may be helpful to negotiate or attend mediation to find creative solutions that protect your children’s safety and their family ties until the COVID-19 shut-downs have passed.
At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our divorce lawyers and mediators have a full range of family law solutions available to help you accomplish custody exchanges and temporary modifications during the Coronavirus shutdowns. We are taking this matter seriously and observing all of the State and local recommendations for our clients and our staff. While we are not offering in-person client meetings, our office remains fully operational. We can help you consider your options and reach an agreement to adjust your visitation schedule and comply with Stay-at-Home orders here in Maryland, and across the country. Our office offers in-person and virtual consultations and mediations using Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and telephone. Contact us today to schedule a mediation or a consultation with one of our attorneys.