Washington Family Law and Child Custody Issues During the Coronavirus
With the current COVID-19 situation, many Seattle families have questions about how child custody works in view of shelter in place orders. The problems are compounded not only by the unique issues this situation raises, but also by the limited ability of the courts to deal with these issues.
There are no automatic changes in Washington State to custody/parenting plan arrangements due to Coronovirus related shelter in place orders. If you feel that changes are need in your parenting plan because you do not feel safe under the current arrangement, you may need to consult with a Seattle child custody law firm about your specific situation and what can be done.
Unfortunately the stresses of loss of schools, loss of income, being cooped at home, etc. can lead to a rise in tension and even physical violence between family members. This can lead to a need to modify existing parenting plans and visitation schedules, or to get new parenting plans in place for newly separating couples.
Are the Family Law Courts in Washington Still Running?
As of this writing (but bear in mind things change fast), the family law courts are ONLY hearing emergency issues, and those are being done remotely. To find out exactly what constitutes an emergency issue, talk to the Seattle family attorneys at our firm If you need to discuss a parenting plan or child support issue, we have both phone and video conference appointments available.
What Do I Do If I Cannot Get a Court Hearing for My Family Law Issue?
Because of the limited availability of the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may want to look at other ways of addressing your legal issues. Any of these options can be done remotely to keep all parties as safe as possible. Your Seattle family attorneys can explain the differences between these options in more depth.
A great option is both parties agreeing to enter into a joint dispute resolution process, such as mediation or collaboration. A primary difference between the two is the amount of support needed. Mediation is often just you, your partner, and a mediator. Collaboration allows you to have the support of a team of professionals helping the two of you work through more difficult issues. Collaboration also specifically has both parties agree that there will be no use of threats of going to court, which tends to focus the discussion on mutual listening and mutual interests.
Another option if the parties feel they cannot work together but need a third party to make a decision for them, is to hire a private arbitrator. An arbitrator is essentially a privately hired judge. Both parties can agree to submit an issue to an arbitrator and to abide by their decision. Further, the arbitrator’s decision can then be turned into a court order for enforcement purposes.
How Does COVID-19 Change Washington Child Custody Determinations If We Do Not Yet Have A Parenting Plan?
Typically when our Seattle child custody attorneys begin a custody/parenting plan case, whether it is part of a divorce or parentage action, we start out by putting in place temporary parenting plan arrangements, anticipating that it will be some time before a permanent parenting plan can either worked out between the parties or determined by a trial court. During the Coronavirus crisis, a temporary parenting plan may need to include special provisions for keeping children and households safe from infection.
The COVID-19 pandemic should not change long term parenting arrangements, because this is only a temporary situation. But in the short term, we may well see parenting arrangements altered to reduce travel and exchanges and comply with shelter in place orders.
While our access to the Seattle and Washington courts is currently limited, when the parenting issues do get before a decision maker (the parties in negotiation, an arbitrator, or the courts), I would expect any decision maker to be concerned with the plans each party has made to provide a safe environment for the children. This would include how well they are maintaining social distancing for the family. If it is clear that one parent is more lax than the other concerning these issues, that is very likely to impact the time the children are able to spend with the parent as long as this situation continues.
On the other hand, a decision maker (whether that is the two of you or a third party) can insist on including detailed social distancing requirements in any agreement or order.
Be aware that arrangements made during this period may still have longer range implications after this is all over. If a one parent has the children a majority of the time during a stay at home period, they may be viewed as the primary parent for purposes of longer range decisions later on. To prevent that, it may be important to negotiate specific provisions as to how the couple wants their child custody arrangements to change after the shelter in place period ends.
Is Our Behavior During A Stay At Home Order Likely To Affect Custody Decisions After This Is All Over?
It might. First off, a time of crisis is a good opportunity to see how people cope with stress and tension. A parent who fails to take reasonable measures to protect the children adequately is likely to be viewed as a parent who will not be able to act in the children’s best interests in the future. Likewise, a parent who responds to the crisis by over reacting could also be seen as a parent unable to make good decisions down the road.
Keep in mind that your personal definition of what is a good decision is not what matters, it is how those decisions will be viewed by any person (including the other parent) or judge having a say in your parenting plan later on. We call this a “reasonable person” standard.
This is, again, why we stress the need to try and come to mutual agreements about how to protect the children rather than taking unilateral action. Taking unilateral action will always did you into a bit of a hole that you will need to work to dig yourself back out of later, even if you believe your unilateral action was entirely justified. Talking to a Seattle child custody lawyer is a good way to get a second set of eyes on the actions you hope to take before you actually implement them.
Let Our Seattle Child Custody Law Firm Help You During COVID-19
When you need a Seattle family lawyer about a child custody matter during Coronavirus, call us at 206-784-3049 or use our contact form to set up an initial consultation to discuss the specifics of your case. We have both phone and video conference consultation available to help keep you and your family safe.