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Volume X, Number 216

July 31, 2020

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Is There a Change in the Custodial Environment Due to Special Circumstances from COVID-19?

In this unprecedented time, with so many conflicting messages, many parents with custodial orders in place are not sure how to best comply with existing parenting time schedules. In response to Governor Whitmer’s stay-in-place order, No. 2020-21, some people have voluntarily modified their custody and parenting time orders for various reasons, e.g., distance between homes is too far, making exchanges unsafe; a member of someone’s household is a first responder or frontline person and both parents agree not to take the risk[1]; a member of someone’s household is more vulnerable to the virus because of health issues; or someone has tested positive for the coronavirus. Others are acting unilaterally and violating court orders, citing their children's health as a justification, still others are hoping the court will make the call. However, most courts are effectively closed for routine matters, and some courts are even ill-equipped to handle emergencies. Therefore, the best – and only – option may be to reach common sense agreements with the other parent in the best interests of your children. 

Legitimate concerns for any parents who make COVID-related parenting time adjustments are, 1) how long such a modification will last, and 2) will they be able to return to the regular schedule when this situation improves? It is possible that parents could go weeks, possibly months, without physically being in their children' presence. Will the other parent use a huge break from the schedule as a reason to later file for modification of parenting time? 

For now, most judges are favoring compliance with current parenting time schedules and are supportive of providing make-up parenting time for parents who are not having parenting time. However, as missed days turn into weeks and possibly months, make-up parenting time may not be realistic in every case. And, will a long gap in parenting time alter the established custodial environment? This legal concept considers where the children, over an appreciable period of time, tend to look for their necessities in life – food, love, comfort, nurturing. Evaluating the established custodial environment is the starting point for every parenting time and custody determination in court. If one parent has the children physically 100 percent of the time for a long period of time, will the children start looking to that parent for such necessities and change the established custodial environment? Likely not. Parents can work together to send the appropriate message to children so they can maintain a connection with a non-custodial parent.

Parents who are modifying their parenting time schedules can take steps to maintain/preserve the relationship between the children and the other parent. First, parents should let children know that the stay-in-place order is temporary, and any changes to the parenting time schedule are for safety or health reasons. Second, the non-custodial parent should have generous time over Skype, Zoom, FaceTime or other such mediums and should be able to spend time with the children outside at a distance if possible. The parents should be creative with the children to facilitate a continuing close relationship with the children and the non-custodial parent.

Although courts have ruled that temporary orders and long gaps can change an established custodial environment in certain cases, these are often cases where parents are unilaterally keeping children from the other parent or otherwise engaged in protracted battles. Modifications due to COVID-19 circumstances are unique, and courts are likely to take that into consideration if faced with motions once the stay-in-place order is lifted.

© 2020 Varnum LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 98

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About this Author

Shalini Nangia Family Law Attorney Varnum Ann Arbor, MI
Counsel

Shalini is a member of the Family Law Practice Team. She specializes in family law litigation, including high-income and high-asset divorces, custody and parenting time, child support, paternity, property division, retirement benefits and post-judgment matters. Her goal is to help clients during one of the most difficult times of their lives get from Point A to Point B in the most efficient and painless manner possible.

Shalini is a trained mediator and an adjunct faculty member teaching family law at the University of Detroit - Mercy School of Law, as well as a regular presenter...

734/372-2928
Julia A. Perkins Family Law Attorney Varnum Novi, MI
Partner

Julia is the chair of the Family Law Team and works with clients in family law matters including divorce, child custody, child support and parenting time matters. She has unique experience with international custody cases and valuation and division of high net worth marital estates. She is also a certified mediator with a focus in family law.

Julia's experience also includes representing clients in commercial litigation.

Practice Areas

  • Family Law
  • Adoption
  • Business Owners: Valuations
  • Custody, Parenting Time and Child Support
  • Divorce
  • Family Law Mediators and Arbitrators
  • Fraud/Hidden Assets
  • Litigation Services
  • Mental Health and Family Law
  • Paternity/Revocations
  • Post-Judgment Matters
  • Pre- and Post-Nuptial Agreements
  • Property Division
  • Spousal Support
248/567-7427
Erika L. Salerno, Kalamazoo, MI, Family Law attorney, Varnum
Counsel

Erika handles family law litigation matters including complex divorces, initial and post judgment child custody matters, change of domicile, paternity, minor guardianship and third-party custody cases involving multistate jurisdictional issues across southwest Michigan. As a domestic relations mediator, she is frequently retained by other lawyers to mediate their most challenging cases. Trained in Collaborative Law, Erika has worked with clients using the Collaborative Law Process since she was trained in 2000.

In addition to her family law...

269- 553-3549