Updated 3/16/20

Much has changed since this article was published.  Utah school schools have closed for several weeks. Events are being canceled and business are temporarily shutting down.

Updates can be found on the Utah Coronavirus Task Force twitter account as well as KUTV’s list of cancellations and closures affecting Utah residents.

If you have not yet created your COVID-19 Co-Parenting plan, we urge you work on one as soon as possible. 

Parents I talk to right now are afraid of the COVID-19 Coronavirus and what it might mean to their children and their already fragile co-parenting relationships.

A proper plan keeps your family safe by minimizing unexpected situations. It helps reduce exposure by enabling everyone to take quick action without wasting time on deliberations or arguments.

Dealing with the effects of COVID-19 such as financial hardship, shortages caused by panic buying, and travel restrictions are already stressful.  Coming up with a co-parenting plan to address the uncertainty might seem overwhelming, but it can be simplified if you focus on these 3 important issues.

Three Issues To Plan For

  1. Decision Making & Legal Custody
  2. Parent Time
  3.  Child Support & Medical Expenses 

In order to talk about this, I have set out below a Case Profile. This is just one possible, or even perhaps very likely scenario. There are endless variations on this set of facts. The COVID-19 virus may affect many families in many different ways. When the family is TWO families in two separate households, things are bound to lead to arguments. 

Case Profile

Mom has primary custody of three children with Dad having extensive parent-time of approximately 40% of the overnights in the course of a year: 1/2 of the holidays, 1/2 of the summer, school year weekends from Friday after school to Monday morning drop-off at school and a weekly overnight on Tuesdays. Mom and Dad share joint legal custody, which is joint decision-making on significant matters that effect the children. They are supposed to attend mediation if they cannot agree.

Mom is remarried and has two children with her new husband. Dad is remarried as well. Both parents work.

One of Mom’s children with her new husband came home from school and has tested positive for COVID-19, the current novel coronavirus. Mom and her husband do not have health insurance for their children and therefore are not inclined to send the infected child to the hospital if they can help it.

Dad’s new wife works in a hospital and is currently waiting for her results from a COVID-19 test. Even if not sick now, she is working in a COVID-19 unit. Dad’s company has shut down for the next two months because of the impact of the coronavirus, putting all of the employees on furlough without pay. Dad does not have the option to work at home.

Dad wants all three of his children out of Mom’s house NOW and to stay with him (without parent-time for Mom) until everyone in Mom’s house tests negative for the virus twice. Because he and his wife work during the day, Dad plans to send the children to school without quarantining them for two weeks at his house even though they have clearly been in contact with their half-sibling who is infected. Mom does not agree that she should be unable to see her children for what could be several weeks or months. Dad tells Mom that he is unable to pay child support for the two months that he is furloughed and that Mom will have to cover any out-of-pocket medical expenses for their children if they do fall sick.

Mom wants to go to mediation to discuss but Dad is unwilling to go. He is afraid that Mom carries the virus and will make him sick.

Legal Custody and Decision Making Power

The parents share legal custody in this case. They are supposed to make decisions together and mediate if they cannot do so.

Firstly, there are mediators available (like myself) who will do mediations using digital platforms that do not require that anyone come in contact with anyone else. So these parents should immediately schedule a mediation with someone who offers e-mediations.

Secondly, there are some immediate problems that cannot wait for mediation. Should Dad immediately be given temporary custody of the three children? Should those children be quarantined or be permitted to go back to school the next day and risk spreading the coronavirus to others? Who gets to decide the answer to these questions?

We recommend that you and your ex come up with a plan NOW, in advance of any actual emergency. Work together yourselves or attend mediation NOW in anticipation of a problem. It will be worth the hour or two that it may take.

YOU CAN USE THIS CASE PROFILE to talk to the other parent and explore a plan. It is unwise to wait until something happens and have to deal with the situation in a panic.

For example, get on the same page about quarantining children if someone in either family is infected with COVID-19. Have a plan for who will care for the children if they must be home from school.

In this case profile, Dad’s wife is working with infected patients. As soon as she was assigned to that work, these parents could have met to talk about the issues and what that means for both families. When your children go back and forth between two households, illness like the coronavirus affects both households. It is not advisable to take the position that it is not the other parent’s business what happens in your home. While that is usually true, in this unusual situation, it IS the other parents business because of your mutual children and the risk of spreading infection.

If you cannot get on the same page, attend mediation with a court-rostered mediator. He or she can help you write up a plan.

Custody and Parent-Time

If one of the parents is infected with the coronavirus or one of the parties’ mutual children, does parent-time still happen? How?

Be Reasonable

Realize that this is an emergency situation. Whatever you agree to do during the COVID-19 outbreak is not permanently changing your custody and parent-time orders. 

You may have to forfeit some parent-time in order to keep your children safe. You may have to temporarily let the other parent be custodial parent and you have little or no parent-time.

Arrange virtual time using a digital platform.  You can video chat, or play games like chess or Minecraft online.

Remember, the situation is not permanent.

Your court orders still rule the day but that might not be what is best for your families. 

Put It In Writing

Whatever agreement you make, put it in writing and make sure to include language that says when the temporary written agreement will end.

Such as, “this agreement will end when no one test positive for COVID-19 in either household” or “this agreement ends when we all return to work and school” or whatever the case may be.

 

Child Support and Out-of-Pocket Medical Expenses

If one parent’s income is impacted because of the coronavirus, does that mean child support changes?

No, but possibly. Let me explain.

The flat answer is no. Temporary changes in income are not grounds to modify child support.

However, if a parent has the children unexpectedly for a different number of overnights than usual, it may reduce child support. This only applies when the parties are not already on the joint custody child support worksheet.

Parents whose child support was calculated using the joint custody child support worksheet (such as those in our case profile) will not be permitted a temporary change of child support. But if a parent’s child support amount was calculated using the sole custody worksheet, Utah Code Annotated section 78B-12-216 states:

“The base child support award shall be (a) reduced by 50% for each child for time periods during which the child is with the noncustodial parent by order of the court or by written agreement of the parties for at least 25 of any 30 consecutive days of extended parent-time; or (b) 25% for each child for time periods during which the child is with the noncustodial parent by order of the court, or by written agreement of the parties for at least 12 of any 30 consecutive days of extended parent-time.”

This does not apply for regular or holiday parent-time.

And regardless of the situation, Utah Code provides that both parties pay 1/2 of out-of-pocket medical costs for the children unless your Court Orders specifically say otherwise.

While Mom, in our case profile above, might agree to allow Dad to delay his payment for those bills for now, that would be totally up to her. If she agrees, make sure it is in writing.

We welcome any and all questions.  Feel free to leave a comment below, or contact us.

Utah Family Law Blog