How Is COVID-19 Impacting Custody Orders?
Since my career began as a Pittsburgh family law attorney in 1989, the court system has never been closed for an extended period. Court closures as a result of COVID-19 distance us from key guidance in managing custody matters involving minor children of separated or divorcing spouses, causing unprecedented difficulties in determining what is “in the best interest of a child.”
Without court guidance how do we avoid anarchy? The ultimate answer is to adhere to the court’s current orders. If court orders are not followed, each party may revert to self-help which ultimately will yield chaotic results.
Generally, it is possible to uphold custody orders while being mindful of shut down provisions issued by state and local governments. Necessary travel to grocery stores, pharmacies and other locations is still permitted. As travel has not been completely banned, current restrictions should not cause interference with most custody exchanges.
Will Court Exceptions Be Made?
But, what if custody exchange of a child with serious breathing or lung problems may now be complicated by exchange location? What if one parent is an emergency room doctor or nurse who is frequently exposed to the virus? Some existing cases having no issues previously may need to be re-examined in this changed atmosphere.
As always, custody cases have many nuances and no hard and fast rules. Each case is different because each child is different, and each family is different. Thorough analysis is required to make prudent choices in “the best interest of the child.”
The courts are cognizant of the need to provide guidance to litigants and attorneys and have begun to respond to the custody issues arising from the shutdowns. Various counties have issued policies on handling COVID-19 concerns and are developing mechanisms to address emergency custody issues.
Will Courts Provide Remote Access?
Technology provides a methodology to resolve many problems via computer or mobile phone apps while maintaining social distancing protocols. Will courts begin conducting emergency custody proceedings by Zoom or some other means? It is conceivable as our unprecedented situation causes us to rethink our responses to formerly routine issues.
Until then, common sense must win the day in this time of turmoil. If parents with extenuating circumstances agree to change a custody order, then they should make the change until the courts can act or shut down orders are eased. Any change must clearly be mutually agreed upon. Do so in writing. Documentation of the new agreement via email, text or any other means is important. Failure to work together in the best interest of the child and document changes, could result in contempt of court issues when the courts reopen and impact the ultimate result of your case.
Can I Still Call a Family Law Attorney?
You can listen to me discuss this further in my recent video post with fellow partner Brian C. Vertz. As always, the Pittsburgh family attorneys at Pollock Begg are available to discuss and advise in these situations. Even though we are working remotely, we are fully accessible. You can still call the office at (412) 471-9000 and your call will be routed appropriately. Visit our newsroom and video gallery often for more articles and videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel as we work to keep everyone up to date on developments in family law and family court during COVID-19.
A well-known equitable distribution and custody litigator in complex, high-conflict divorce cases, Pollock Begg Partner Todd M. Begg has practiced family law for more than two decades. Todd has tried numerous economic and custody cases in Allegheny County and western Pennsylvania. He is an active lecturer on family law-related matters and has previously lectured on custody, support and discovery in divorce actions for local and state bar associations as well as the Pennsylvania Bar Institute.