Harris County’s Stay at home order does not affect exchanges of children

Regular custody arrangements are what you and your children have come to expect since your prior divorce or child custody case. The court orders that your family is operating under are likely particular and spell out exactly how long your children are to spend with you, your ex-spouse, and how to pick up/drop-offs are to be conducted. The location of the possession exchanges and any other details are to be found in those orders. You have likely memorized all the specifics contained in your court documents.

However, given the sudden nature of changes to our lives resulting from the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic, you and your entire family have had to learn how to adjust on the fly to changes in a regularly set schedule. Balancing your desires to be with your child, following the court orders, and minimizing exposure for all people involved to the virus is the norm for your family and many others around our state and nation. You may have asked yourself what you should do given these changes and what you can do under the court orders.

Suppose that you and your significant other are a doctor, nurse, or other working in the medical field. Your exposure to the virus probably makes it, so you are concerned with causing them to unnecessarily be exposed to the virus. At the same time, you don’t want to violate your court orders or miss out on experiences with your child despite these drama-filled times that we are living in currently.

Temporary modifications of the possession orders may work

You and your child’s other parent have the option at your disposal to modify the court orders on your own. You do not need to wait for a judge’s permission or even the guidance of an attorney to get this done for your family. All it takes is a willingness of you and the other parent to make changes that work best for your family.

In my example above, if you are a doctor treating patients every day with this coronavirus, it is probably a prudent idea for you not to have direct contact with your child right now. This is true even if you would generally have them right now. Instead, you create an agreement with the other parent to let him spend the next few weeks with your child while you work and care for others. When this situation improves, then you can return to your usually scheduled periods of visitation.

The safety of your child and your family is the number one priority. You can always create time in the future for “make up visitation” for the parent who lost out on time with your child. This is also an excellent opportunity to speak to your child honestly about what is happening in the world. Age-appropriate conversations can go a long way towards alleviating their fears about coronavirus and give them context and reassurance that you are here to protect them.

Balancing health concerns and the need for parents to exercise visitation rights

The Texas Supreme Court has been evident since issuing clarifying orders regarding possession schedules for families in mid-March. These orders instructed Texas families to continue with their current possession schedules as if schools had not closed down for the semester. Business as usual, in other words. The Supreme Court does not have a crystal ball or a window into your home, however. You and your child’s other parent need to be the adults in the room and make the best decisions for you and your children.

This may force you and your child’s other parent to work together on a shared goal for the first time since your family law case. Depending on the nature of your relationship, this can be awkward or near impossible. If you can put the past behind you and work towards favorable outcomes for your children, then this period may end up being nothing more than an opportunity to hone your co-parenting skills.

On the other hand, if you and your child’s other parent cannot get along whatsoever and have problems being civil towards one another, this period may prove to be a significant challenge. I would suggest that you speak to your child’s other parent over the phone and express any concerns about the visitation schedule and how you propose to overcome those concerns.

If you cannot work out any agreement despite the need to do so, then you can contact an experienced family law attorney to get their perspective and assistance. For example, the attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan can help you and your family by providing solutions to your problems after consulting with one of our licensed family law attorneys. We have seen many families go through hard times such as these and have a wealth of experience helping people out of difficult situations. Let us assist you and your child’s other parent in helping to come up with a flexible visitation modification.

Getting from point A to point B can prove to be a challenge right now.

On top of health concerns, there are problems associated with simply picking up/dropping off children right now. Your child’s school and extracurricular activities may usually dictate when and where your child is exchanged between you and the other parent. With school and activities shut down, you may have to figure out alternative places to exchange possession for the time being.

Another issue to consider is whether or not you will be able to travel even moderate distances from your home right now. Most of the counties in our area have shelter in place orders set up that limit our ability to move about freely. If you live in Conroe and have to drive into Houston to pick up your child, you will need to be aware that doing so may violate any shelter in place orders set up for Montgomery County.

It would go without saying that if you or your child’s other parent live outside Texas, plane travel probably isn’t all that smart right now. Interstate travel plans should undoubtedly be reassessed for these next few weeks as public health officials determine how safe it is to move about the country.

Are you worried about your ex-spouse’s new partner?

Many parents are worried also about their ex-spouse’s new romantic partner following the guidelines for keeping safe in this period. It is reasonable to expect that most people will do their best to avoid situations that can lead to contracting this virus. However, not all people can be expected to minimize their contact and limit getting sick. It would make sense for you to have concerns about the people in your child’s life adhering to the same protocols for avoiding this virus.

These concerns are not enough; it would seem to deny your ex-spouse visitation with your children. You could have these same concerns during flu season in any year. It still would not justify you withholding visitation from them. You can and should speak to the other parent to lay out what should be reasonable guidelines for limiting contact between your children and other people outside of your family. That does not mean wholly withholding visitation in violation of your court orders.

Courts are closed right now- for the most part.

It may be possible for your court to schedule an online hearing in your case. Your attorney, an opposing lawyer, and the judge may be able to set up a hearing online to address issues in your lives. However, if you and your family are not currently engaged in a family law case, then your ability to do so is slim to none. That puts even more of an emphasis on you and your ex-spouse’s ability to work together to solve problems associated with possession and visitation.

The Texas Supreme Court has issued multiple emergency rulings associated with family law, possession, and visitation of children during this period. These rulings have indicated that you and the other parent in your child’s life should follow whatever custody orders are in place from the family court. What was in effect before the coronavirus should be followed right now. The possession schedule for your child trumps any stay-at-home orders issued by a mayor or county judge.

What about mediation?

Normallymediation would offer a welcome alternative to fighting and disputes between you and your child’s other parent. Letting a third party intercede into your circumstances to help you all figure out some common sense solutions to your problems is a great way to achieve results that suit all parties well.

You can attempt to find mediators in our area who will meet with you in person or over the internet to create temporary possession orders that suit your family’s needs. The mediator can help you if nothing else, and your spouse identifies issues that you all may not have even considered. Mediators can help you hatch a plan with your ex-spouse to get you through these days of social distancing and quarantine. While the agreement would not be a court order, it would give you and your spouse a definite arrangement to structure visitation by.

Once these strange times have ended, you and your child’s other parent would return to the court orders that were in place. The mediation agreement would not be used as evidence in future court appearances. This is an important aspect to note since some parents would be interested in temporarily using agreements to force the other parent’s hand and use the agreement as a precedent for future modifications.

Don’t underestimate how well you and the other parent can handle these challenges.

There is undoubtedly a lot of pressure on parents to make good decisions for their children during uncertain times. With that said, the co-parenting abilities of parents who don’t get along well or maybe don’t even speak to one another often cannot be underestimated in times like this. While you may have laughed at the thought of working with your ex-spouse on parenting issues, with no courts holding hearings on a regular schedule, this is your best option.

In the meantime, the takeaway from this blog post is that for as long as Harris County has a stay-at-home order in place, you should not take matters into your own hands when it comes to possession exchanges. Continue to go off of your current court orders until you can get before a judge to establish new orders. Short of that, you and your child’s other parent are free to negotiate between yourselves for a makeshift order that could get you through these challenging times.

While you may not be aware of it, stress and anxiety are not the best characteristics to employ when negotiating sensitive topics during a pandemic. Unfortunately, many of us are feeling that way right now. The best thing that you can do for yourself and your family is to be self-aware and patient when engaging the other parent in matters related to possession and visitation of your children.

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