The coronavirus has had an unprecedented effect on many aspects of our lives, including our jobs, entertainment, health, education and our parenting relationship with our children.
Courts in Pennsylvania have closed for normal business until April 30. Therefore, new cases may not be accepted for standard divorce or child custody matters. This means that you will probably have to wait to file your divorce or child custody case until the court reopens.
After the order regarding the court closures was announced, parents were confused about how they would be able to follow their custody orders while sheltering in place or even if they should. It is important that parents understand that their current child custody agreements are still in place and effective even if there are restrictions on non-essential travel. Parent who willfully disobey court orders can face claims for contempt of court and additional sanctions. Additionally, many jurisdictions have issued clarifying orders that state that custody orders are still in effect and should be followed. Travel for child custody reasons is still permitted.
Pennsylvania courts are open for emergency hearings, but parents may think that something is an emergency that a court does not. Filings for emergency hearings should not be made in vain; a true emergency needs to exist. Special measures may need to be put in place if the child has COVID-19 or one of the parent’s homes has a family member with the virus or at high-risk for obtaining it.
Negotiation and Mediation
As much as possible, family courts in Pennsylvania expect parents to try to work together to manage the challenges the COVID-19 outbreak has caused. For example, parents may need to address issues such as:
- How to continue a child’s education when they have limited access to the internet or must stay home
- How to care for a child if one or both parents must go to work or work from home
- How to have consistent hygiene in different households to minimize the possibility of catching or spreading the virus
- How to make up for lost parenting time due to COVID-19
The parents may be able to resolve these disputes by communicating openly and respectfully about their concerns to each other or through their family lawyers. However, if they are unable to reach a resolution, they may consider mediation.
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that is guided by a third party neutral who helps the parties reach an amicable decision about a legal problem. This helps them avoid going to court. Mediation can sometimes be completed online to minimize the health impact of COVID-19.
Modification of Orders
If you and the other parent do not agree on making changes to the child custody order, you may wish to seek a modification to your order. This requires you to show that there has been a material change since the last custody order was put in place and that a change would be in your child’s best interests. We can discuss whether a modification might be appropriate in your case.