How to negotiate child custody during the COVID-19 pandemic explained by celebrity divorce lawyer Peter M. Walzer.
With stay-at-home orders in place, children of divorce can be put in difficult situations.
While court-enforced custody orders mandate a certain splitting of time between households, there’s a variety of other factors at play right now that might mean you’ve decided to negotiate an alternate arrangement. We sit down with a top family law attorney to discuss what the law does and doesn’t say about custody at this time.
Plus, we want to hear from you about how you’re negotiating parenting if you are not living with your child’s other parent. Have you decided to keep your child in one home? Are you traveling and splitting your children’s time between homes? What health and safety variables are going into your decision making and was it difficult to come to that agreement?
One of the challenges of living with COVID-19 and physical distancing exists for families where there’s joint custody of a child. So, you have a child who goes back and forth between the homes of both of the exes. And how do you do that if you’ve got some very different ways of keeping a home safe from COVID-19?
You may have one of the exes, for example, who’s comfortable having other extended family members, or friends, come into the house. They may not be engaging in physical distancing. And then you’ve got the other ex who’s a real hawk about this, and very observant of physical distancing. No one comes in or out of the house except the immediate family members, and all sorts of safety protocols that are reasonable are taken.
If you have joint custody, or even shared custody, with an ex, how are you negotiating that? And if this has been a point of conflict with your ex, or with your child or your children, share with us how you’re trying to resolve it.
I’m asking you if you are a parent who shares custody, or has joint custody of your child with an ex, what are the ways that you are negotiating or trying to deal with differences in the ways that the two different households are handling COVID-19?
Los Angeles celebrity divorce lawyer, Peter M. Walzer, is here to answer all COVID-19 pandemic child custody and divorce issues whose clients raise issues like this surrounding COVID-19.
“Yes, this is coming up all the time. Parents are in crisis, as we know, under tremendous pressure. And dealing with another parent, and grandparents, and caregivers is extremely testing for people, and they are challenged at this time,” says top family law attorney Peter M. Walzer.
And is there any sort of clarity in family law that deals with times like this, and new factors that might be introduced with having joint custody?
“This is really unprecedented. State and local officials have said that life should continue as normal. Custody orders should be obeyed. But the reality is, in dangerous times and with the virus, parents are confounded on difficult decisions as to whether to send their kids to the other parent or not,” Peter M. Walzer of top family law firm Walzer Melcher explains.
Well, and you also can have health differences. Let’s say that mom lives with someone, or has remarried to someone who has some underlying health vulnerabilities, but wants to be able to see her child, or her kids, who maybe spend half the time with her ex. And so, there’s the issue about potentially bringing in exposure that’s outside. I could see where this would be very challenging. And you’ve got competing concerns between the new spouse or partner, and your child.
“And essentially the courts are closed except for emergencies,” states high net worth family law attorney Peter M. Walzer. “An emergency is child abuse or domestic violence, somebody getting seriously injured. To go into court now is dangerous for the parties, for the attorneys. So there’s nobody to make decisions out there. And people may take advantage of this. But when the courts are open, people have to think that a court who sees a parent who has taken advantage of the situation, there is going to be a judge who could be very upset about this kind of thing. So parents should be following the court orders to the best of their abilities. And if they can’t, make it up with Zoom calls, FaceTime calls. Agree to make-up time when the restrictions relax. There’s got to be some civility in this process between parents.”
Gary, a senior parent explains his complex divorce issue. “I’m going through a divorce right now, and my 11-year-old son is with his mother right now. But she really isn’t concerned at all about the virus. She’s 30 years younger than me, and she thinks it’s just not going to affect her. And she takes him to work, she takes him to her grandparents’ house, she exposes him, she has friends come over. It’s like nothing.And I’m 30 years older. I’m in a high-risk category, and I have to protect myself. I don’t let anybody in the house. And if he comes here, how is he going to feel if, God forbid, something happens to me because of him? He’s going to spend the rest of his life thinking that he was guilty of killing me, or giving me this virus.”
“Well, this puts you in a very difficult position,” says Airtalk host Larry Mantle. “Have you spoken with your soon-to-be ex about your need to remain safe, and the importance of your son not being exposed to this larger world?”
“Yes, of course I have,” relies Gary.
“And so, what’s her response to that?” asks Larry.
“Her response is that I’m neglecting my responsibility as a parent. And she’ll keep him because she’ll get more child support money. So, she’s on the one hand happy with that, but then unhappy with the fact that he’s there all the time. So she takes him to her parents’ house so she can have a weekend off and meet with her friends, or boyfriends, or whatever,” says Gary.
“So she rejects the idea that you’re at comparatively high risk? Or she just doesn’t engage with that issue?” asks Larry.
“She just thinks I’m irresponsible as a parent,” replies Gary.
“Gary, I am so sorry to hear this. Peter Walzer, any advice?” asks Larry.
“Yes. First cover your tracks in writing, consult with an attorney, and do offer to go to a telephone or Zoom mediator who is experienced in this area to try to resolve the issues and get some clear protocols for addressing your safety, the child’s safety and her safety, frankly,” states top family law attorney Peter M. Walzer. “I think you need to cover yourself. She’s not going to be able to get more child support based on this. She has to get into court first. And I think if you cover your tracks and you’re careful, and do it in a respectful way, no court is going to increase your child support. And when things get back to normal, your custody schedule should go back to normal, and you should get make-up time.”
Robin in Los Alamitos states “My ex and I have 50/50 custody, and currently we’ve agreed that the kids stay with me for the time being until everything goes back to normal. He does come by on his days off to visit with the kids. They go outside, they hang out, play baseball, do whatever it is that they do. And then, he also brings food by once a week so that the kids can have food and that they see that he’s supporting them.
“That sounds good. Are you comfortable with how this is working out?” asks Larry.
“Yeah, actually I am. Their father is in a high-risk category and he’s still working with the public. And so, we want to make sure that he stays healthy throughout this whole thing, but also that the kids stay healthy, as well,” replies Robin.
“That’s great. How old are your children?” asks Larry.
“They are 13 and 15,” says Robin.
“Very good. So they’re old enough, they understand what’s going on. And it’s clear to them, I assume,” replies Larry.
“Yeah, they absolutely do. We both have had conversations with them, and they’ve agreed to this, as well,” says Robin.
“Very good. Robin, I’m glad this is working out. You think it’s going to be hard to go back to the usual once we go through this period? Will that be an adjustment for the kids, and for you and your ex?” asks Larry.
“I don’t think it’ll be too bad for myself and the ex. I know that the kids will probably go through a little bit of a transitional period, just because they are very routine oriented still. So, this change is a little bit difficult for them, knowing that they weren’t going to be with their dad as much,” states Robin.
Michael in Woodland Hills states “Well, right now my ex and I, we have an eight-and-a-half-year-old that we share custody with. And so, the biggest challenge has been where to keep her as we do our homeschooling. She’s a teacher, but I’m a cyber professional. And so, as I’m usually working very hard during the daytime, and trying to find that balance of going through these lessons, but she’s a full-time teacher, we have this tug and pull on where she should be for the education standpoint. And then aside from that, I have a new relationship that I’m only 90 days into, and half of it has been through COVID. So we’ve been merging families to try to consolidate resources, and keeping that contamination circle very tight where I’m the only one leaving, going to the market. So I’m taking all the precautions because I sometimes have to see clients. So dealing with the homeschooling and where the best place for the homeschooling should be, then trying to keep these co-parenting homes in a closed, contaminated circle’s been quite the challenge.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a lot of balls in the air, Michael. And I can’t imagine starting a relationship where half of it is in the COVID-19 era, and you’ve each got kids, and you’re trying to deal with all of those balls in the air. Michael, I appreciate it. Thanks very much. And sounds like you’re getting a handle on it,” says Larry.
Travis in Santa Ana, states “Hi. I’m not having very much luck with mine. At this point, we are in the middle of a pretty bad divorce, and she’s not letting me see the kids. In addition to that, she did offer at one point that I be allowed to do a Zoom conference with them. But I asked her to not interfere, and she keeps doing that and the kids go missing.”
“You said they go missing? You mean from the Zoom teleconference?” asks Larry.
“Yeah. Meaning for two minutes, or mostly about two hours, in some cases. And now she has completely lost it and is saying that I’m tapping her phone, and I’m monitoring her computer and all that stuff. And I can’t see the kids anymore,” says Travis.
“I tried to get the Sheriff’s Department involved on a number of occasions because she wouldn’t let me see the kids, even though I have a court order for it. And they’re saying that even if I had a court order saying I had full custody, that they wouldn’t be able to force her to give me the kids unless there was a sign of abuse,” states Travis.
“Travis, boy, this is a very, very difficult circumstance. And you’re going through the divorce right now,” states Larry Mantle. “Acclaimed family law attorney, Peter M. Walzer, any advice for Travis?”
“Yes, I say this too shall pass. Lay a good groundwork. Don’t show that you’re upset, or get angry. I know that’s a tough order, but at some point you’re going to be in court and the judge is going to review her behavior. I also have to say that people are acting out because of their fear, because of all the things that are going on, the pressures. And you’ve got to give them a little leeway even though you’re being treated unfairly, this is wrong. But it will pass, and you got to get through this. Perhaps you can get an intervention through your attorney to her attorney. Lay a good groundwork, don’t lose it yourself, and there will be a time when you may get custody of the kids based on her behavior,” states top family law attorney Peter M. Walzer.
“Kate in Eagle Rock, I understand you’re a divorce coach, as well as a divorced mother. So, what are some of the things that you’re experiencing?” asks Larry.
“In my family we have three kids going back and forth between four households,” says Kate. “ The variables in blended families, beyond just divorce, right? In divorce, you may have just two households, one kid going back and forth. But when you have the additional variables of a blended family, where my ex-husband is married to someone who also has a kid with her ex-husband, and then they have a kid together who has a different biological mother. And so, it requires a flowchart. But the level of variables in blended families increases exponentially. And it’s been really challenging. We’re lucky that we are on the same page for the most part. I think I’m more cautious than my ex-husband, but we’re in a lot of communication. And after 10 years of being divorced, we’ve really gotten to a place of collaboration and communication, which I think a lot of people don’t have. But my ex’s wife’s ex-husband was traveling overseas. He was working in a foreign country, and he came back and self-quarantined. But what if he hadn’t?
“Then it would throw everything and multiple families into uproar. It’s such a good point that you raise, that any one of these cards in the house of cards, you pull it away and the whole thing could collapse. What stands out to me is that your ex, even though he has a little different degree of sensitivity about COVID-19 and precautions, it sounds like he respects where you stand on it. And I think, to me that’s the big thing here is, you may not see it the same way, and you may even think,’Well, maybe it’s silly that your partner goes to these lengths.’ But if you can respect your ex and his or her wishes, and take those into account. Kate, I assume as a divorce coach, you’d give that advice,” says Larry.
“I absolutely would. Communication is everything, right? And this is not about us individually. This isn’t about my feelings about it. This is about the greater good overall. We’re talking about this from a global perspective, too. But in working out these things when people are angry. I think it was Gary in Bel Air who was talking about that his ex-wife, for example, is not having any of that respect for him and his sensitivities, and is using the virus as a weapon,” says Kate.
“Sure. At least as he’s portraying that, definitely. Kate, I want to thank you so much. And I’m glad that with all the complexity of the blended family you’re describing, that it’s working well. I appreciate it. And my thanks to celebrity divorce lawyer Peter M. Walzer of Woodland Hills, who for over four decades has been practicing family law in Los Angeles County court. Thank you so much, Peter, I really appreciate your expertise. Great to have you with us, states Larry Mantle.