The fall and winter holidays are a magical time of year for many. After all, these are the times of year when we travel to get together with family and create new memories that will last a lifetime. At the same time, these things that make the holiday season so joyful, can also contribute to stress for newly separated or divorced parents who must navigate time-sharing issues during this special time of year. While this can prove challenging any holiday season, it is particularly difficult during the age of COVID-19, when traveling abroad or even locally, from household to household can present problems. Here are a few holiday travel and time-sharing issues during COVID-19 that you may be facing, and what you should know about how to handle them.
Visitation During the Holidays or COVID-19: In Florida, the Child’s Best Interests Remains the Guiding Principle
It is not uncommon for separated or divorced parents to find themselves alone on days like Christmas or Thanksgiving, or to face difficult decisions about travel plans and time issues. Even partners who have been co-parenting successfully for many years can still run into periodic challenges and safe to say, COVID-19 has been an historical one.
The thing to understand about Florida’s child custody laws (legally called “time-sharing” in the state of Florida), is that they are predicated upon the idea of shared parental responsibility and guided by what is in the “best interest of the child”. Any issues that may arise due to disagreements over visitation over the holidays and/or during COVID-19 will always circle back to this foundational principle, the original orders put in place to facilitate it, and the ways in which changing circumstances may affect it.
Modifying a Time-Sharing Agreement Due to COVID-19
A final custody or time-sharing decree in a dissolution of marriage or annulment is not necessarily final. Sometimes, circumstances change, and COVID-19 is certainly one type of change that can warrant modification of an existing time-sharing agreement.
Once again, Florida Courts will always encourage parents to work together to share in parenting rights and responsibilities in ways that consider all factors, with the biggest among those being the best interest of the child. But, if parents are unable to reach an agreement, then either party can seek an emergency modification from a court.
It should be noted that Florida is comprised of twenty circuit courts representing various local geographies. While time-sharing rules in Florida are governed by state laws, COVID-19 regulations and impacts can vary from municipality to municipality (think about variables like school closures, for instance). As a result, modification orders, even while being directed primarily by Florida law, may still be influenced by local factors.
What to Do When One Parent Tests Positive for COVID-19
A parent testing positive for COVID-19 should immediately notify the other parent of the positive test. Coronavirus represents a serious, clear and obvious danger to the health of a child, and it is not in their best interest to be around the infected individual. Both parents have an obligation to protect the child with greatest responsibility falling on the primary residential parent. Both should try to work together to come to a temporary time-sharing agreement to keep the child safe. However, if a parent who has tested positive demands their regular visitation under an existing time-sharing order, then the other parent may seek an emergency modification.
In such a case, a Florida court would likely issue a modification temporarily restricting physical time-sharing with the infected parent, limiting their contact to communication via video or telephone until the parent was able to complete a quarantine period and produce a negative COVID-19 test. Ideally, parents should also try to voluntarily agree on a make-up schedule if time sharing is lost due to impacts of the pandemic.
How Time-Sharing Works When the Primary Residential Parent Tests Positive for COVID-19
If the primary residential parent of a child tests positive for COVID-19, that parent still has the responsibility to protect the child (as do both parents). In such a case, both parties should try to work out a plan for the child to stay with the secondary parent, or if that is impossible, then with another agreed-upon individual. If the primary residential parent refuses to do this, then the co-parent may seek an emergency modification.
How Does Time-Sharing Work When a Child Tests Positive for COVID-19?
When a child tests positive for COVID-19, primary responsibility for the care of the child falls upon the primary residential parent. That parent should seek to follow recommended CDC guidelines which include quarantining the child by isolating them at home for 14 days, ideally followed by a negative test result. If the co-parent gets upset and insists on exercising their rights under an existing time-sharing order, then the primary residential parent may seek an emergency modification. Likewise, if the co-parent pursues a modification, it is likely the court would not grant it, nor hold the primary residential parent in contempt for not following the time-sharing decree.
Holiday Travel with Children During COVID-19 Must Still Align with Your Time-Sharing Agreement
Unless a time-sharing agreement precludes out-of-state travel, then generally, either parent may elect to travel with their child during the holidays. This is true, even during the pandemic and regardless of whether the co-parent agrees. That said, violating travel laws and/or ignoring CDC guidelines can impact custody cases. When traveling out-of-state or internationally with children over the holidays, it is important to check in advance for any quarantine restrictions. If a destination requires a quarantine period that will ultimately result in a violation of allotted visitation time spelled out in a time-sharing order, then you will not be able to travel without violating that order or breaking state laws.
What if Another Family Member Tests Positive for Covid-19? Can a Child travel to Visit Them?
If another family member test positive for COVID-19, then travel to visit them should be based upon the 14-day quarantine period, and whether that individual has been in quarantine for the recommended period and/or can provide a negative test result. If so, then travel may still be appropriate. If not, then travel may be inappropriate.
Be Smart When It Comes to Holiday Travel and Time-Sharing During COVID-19
As is the case with all issues related to time-sharing, visitation during the holidays, and with COVID-19, it is wise for parents to try and work together, focusing on being fair to all parties, but ultimately doing what is in the best interest of the child. Traveling and household contact are both good ways to get and spread COVID-19, and children can be asymptomatic and spread the disease for extended periods without ever knowing it. You may wish to consider testing yourself and your children prior to traveling for the holidays, and of course, follow common-sense health protocols. This way, you can be as safe as possible, while still enjoying the holidays with your children and other family and friends.
Time-sharing issues are often a sensitive subject. The holidays and COVID-19 can further heighten stress and disagreements. If you have concerns that your rights are being violated or about the safety and welfare of your family, then contact a Florida family law attorney experienced in child custody and time-sharing for quick assistance with your issues. In Jacksonville, call the family law lawyers at Parra Harris Law at (904) 900-1617 or email us at [email protected]