Family Law: Co-parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic
The current COVID-19 global pandemic is an unprecedented occurrence in the modern world and has required flexibility and creativity in almost all aspects of life. People are working and studying from home, non-essential facilities have shut down and people are coming up with inventive ways to stay in touch and keep community morale as positive as possible.
The pandemic has affected a vast array of normal lifestyle routines, many of which an average person may not consider unless it’s happening to them or someone they know. One such situation is that of co-parenting with a former partner.
This article aims to provide some general guidance and tips about how to go about co-parenting during this uncertain, but temporary, time.
What does the Family Court expect of me?
The Family Court of Australia has issued co-parenting guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Family Court of WA has not issued any such guidelines to date, we can use the Family Court of Australia’s guidelines as a good indication of what the Family Court of WA will expect during this time.
Some of the guidelines are listed below, but you can read the full list by clicking on the hyperlink above.
- As per any co-parenting arrangement, the paramount consideration is the best interests of the child.
- The Court recognises that there may be some parts of parenting orders that cannot be complied with right now. For example, drop-off and pick-up locations may have shut down, one parent (or someone else in the household) might have contracted COVID-19 or been in contact with someone who has contracted it, or contact with one parent might need to be in a public location which is currently closed. If compliance with your parenting orders has been made impossible because of COVID-19, the Court says you should communicate with the other party “sensibly and reasonably”, if it is safe to do so.
- If you and your former partner are able to come up with a temporary alternative arrangement, you should put it in writing. An email, text or message via a social media platform will suffice. If it is not possible or safe to reach an alternative arrangement with your former partner, you can contact the court to request a variation of the orders.
- Electronic mediation services are available if you and your former partner require such a service.
What are some practical things I need to consider?
We understand that you may have a lot of things on your mind right now. To assist you, we have compiled a list of practical things to think about that you might not have considered yet.
- Be responsible and mindful about how you are speaking to your children about COVID-19
The Australian Red Cross has provided some useful tips about how to speak to your child about COVID-19, including some good language to use. It’s important that your child knows that you are available to listen to their questions and concerns arising from the virus and that you will always be there to look after them. The Red Cross has also suggested that you tell your child that the virus will not last forever and that experts are working hard to find out more about the virus so we can stop it.
- Communicate openly if you can
We recommend speaking openly with your former partner about the situation, if it is safe for you to do so. Remember that you both want what is best for your child(ren) and if you speak openly you may be able to come up with a compromise that suits both of you and, most importantly, is in the best interest of your child(ren).
Communicating is also important because if you and your former partner are adopting different precautions in relation to COVID-19, the efforts of one party may not be effective if the children are exposed to risks whilst in the care of the other party.
We also want to emphasise that you should not contact your former partner if doing so will put your and/or your child(ren) at risk. If you think you are in immediate danger, call the police.
- Consider alternative methods of contact
Just like many other aspects of life, COVID-19 may require you to be a bit creative in your thinking. If it is unsafe or impractical for your child to have physical contact with one parent for the time being, consider Skype, FaceTime and/or phone calls. It’s important to be considerate of your former partner’s wishes and concerns and to remember that it is important for you child to have meaningful contact with both of their parents.
The Red Cross has also emphasised the importance of maintaining your child’s normal routine as much as possible.
- Be honest with your former partner
If you, someone in your household or someone you have had close contact with contracts COVID-19 you should inform your former partner as soon as possible. Similarly, if your child develops any symptoms of COVID-19, you should inform your former partner.
- Be flexible and compassionate
Other circumstances may impact on your ability to care for your child during this time. For example, you or your former partner may have to work from home or, if either of you are classified as an essential worker, your work hours may have increased temporarily.
You and/or your former partner may also be impacted financially by COVID-19 and may have lost your job or faced reduced hours. This can affect many things, one of which potentially being your capacity to pay child support. If your former partner is required to pay child support to you, you may need to be flexible with that requirement for the time being. If you are required to pay child support to your former partner, but your capacity to do so is negatively affected by COVID-19, you should try to pay as much as you can, rather than nothing. Again, it is important to be open with your former partner about this, or any other issue.
- Follow official advice
Just like everyone else, it is important that you follow official advice and regulations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the public gathering regulations and bans on inter-regional travel within WA.
If you and your partner live in different regions in WA, the ban on non-essential travel between regions may affect your parenting arrangements. There are exceptions to this ban, but at this stage we do not know whether travel in order to comply with co-parenting arrangements constitute an exception.
Should I get legal advice?
The guidelines and tips provided in this article serve as general advice. As you know, every set of circumstances are different and what works for another family might not work for yours. For this reason, we advise you to seek expert legal advice if you are at all concerned or confused about your rights and/or obligations in relation to co-parenting during this time.
As this is an unprecedented event, it is normal for you to be feeling a bit unsure about how to approach your co-parenting situation. At Lynn & Brown Lawyers, we have a team of family lawyers who are happy to assist with any questions or concerns you may have. Please do not hesitate to get in touch on 9375 3411 and we can arrange a telephone or video conference with one of our five family lawyers.
This article has been co-authored by Chelsea McNeill and Jacqui Brown at Lynn & Brown Lawyers. Chelsea is in her fifth year of studying Law at Murdoch University. Jacqui Brown is a Perth lawyer and director, and has over 20 years’ experience in legal practice and practices in family law, mediation and estate planning. Jacqui is also a Nationally Accredited Mediator and a Notary Public.