In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many families are trying to navigate caring for and schooling children who are out of school for the indefinite future while balancing work-from-home or unemployment. For those parents who are divorced or separated, these circumstances have also raised questions about what to do with custody and parenting time orders. With directives from the Governor to stay home and new responsibilities for children at home, what happens to the parenting time schedule?
We are all aware that the current situation is unprecedented. When it comes to legal questions, this means there is no Court Rule, statute or decided case right on point to answer family law questions. What we must rely on, then, are fundamental principles embedded in our law. In situations involving children, the law in New Jersey is clear that the best interests of the children are the court’s primary concern.
For the parent who is not sure whether the children should go with the other parent for regularly scheduled time, or the parent who believes the children are being wrongfully withheld, the law tells us to consider the following. The New Jersey statute which details the “best interests of the child” standard begins on the foundation that the best interests of a child are served by maintaining a close relationship and regular contact with both parents. The statute then goes on to list specific considerations that a court must balance against this foundation. These considerations include the needs of the child, child’s safety, quality of education and geographic considerations, among other things. In the current climate, parents must think about whether travel for parenting time would put the child at risk, whether educational needs can be met by both parents, and whether the child can continue to share time with both parents by some modified schedule that makes more sense under the circumstances.
In the wake of this pandemic, when judges are asked to rule on such questions, they are going to look to the ability and efforts of the parents to communicate and cooperate for the sake of their children. If you are having difficulty resolving these issues, an experienced family law attorney can counsel you through these extraordinary times.