It can take quite a while for couples to put aside the emotions associated with the end of a marriage or romantic relationship and focus on working together to raise their children. Shared custody arrangements succeed only when the parties are willing to cooperate with each other and be flexible when confronted by unforeseen circumstances. The worldwide pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus has directly impacted most of the world’s population as the spread of the illness has claimed lives and forced governments to impose quarantines and other measures that dramatically changed the established routines of most people. All levels of government in Georgia and throughout the country enacted measures to slow the spread of the virus by limiting activities that put people in close proximity to each other. Shelter-in-place orders forcing people to restrict travel outside of their homes, mandatory closing of schools and many businesses, and social distancing rules to limit physical contact between people not living in the same household are only some of the measures enacted to control the spread of the disease. COVID-19 presents challenges unlike anything parents could have anticipated when they agreed to raise their children under a shared custody arrangement. Mutual cooperation and putting the best interests of their children ahead of their own interests may be the keys to successfully navigating through a shared custody arrangement during a worldwide pandemic. Shared custody in Georgia When a couple with children get a divorce or choose to live apart without terminating their marriage, custody arrangements for the children must be taken into consideration. Georgia law requires parents to prepare a parenting plan to serve as a guide for determining child custody. Courts accept separate plans from each parent or parents may work out their differences and submit a joint plan for resolving custody. The public policy as reflected by the state’s family laws is for custody arrangements to foster and continue the relationship between a child and both parents. Shared custody arrangements with both parents participating in raising a child work best when the parents work together to resolve disputes and conflicts that could adversely affect the relationship parents have with their children. A worldwide pandemic does not offer an opportunity for a parent to interfere with the shared custody routine established during “normal” times Best interests of the child should prevail The governor of Georgia issued an executive order on April 2, 2020 directing that all residents shelter in place to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The order limited travel outside of the home only to engaging in essential services, including:
Shopping for food and necessary household supplies. Obtaining medical services. Engaging in outdoor exercise. Traveling to and from work for those individuals whose employers were allowed to continue operations. People could not have visitors to their homes. Exceptions to the no-visitor rule included visitors providing medical services, delivering food and household supplies, and those providing assistance with daily living activities to someone in the home. The immediate challenge for parents was how to comply with a shared custody arrangement without risking criminal charges for violating the shelter-in-place order. Technically, the governor’s order required children to remain with the parent they were living with on April 2, 2020 regardless of the terms of a custody order or the child custody provisions of a separation agreement. An executive order issued April 3, 2020 addressed concerns about conflicts created by shelter-in-place rules and other measures imposed by state and local governments in Georgia with court orders and parental agreements pertaining to child custody. The new executive order made it clear that child custody orders and custodial arrangements were not to be infringed upon by COVID-19 measures imposed by the government. When a parent requests a change to the pre-pandemic routine established under a shared custody arrangement, it should be discussed between the parents and be consistent with Georgia law, which stresses the best interest of the child as the primary consideration. Protecting the health and welfare of a child may require temporarily changing an established routine and could affect a parent’s ability to spend time with their child. For example, when one of the parents has symptoms of the illness or has been exposed to someone with the COVID-19 virus, the need to isolate that parent from the child should be obvious and not lead to a dispute between parents. Options when conflicts arise between parents Parents unable to resolve custody issues may find it difficult to seek assistance from the courts during the pandemic. The courts in Georgia remain under a statewide judicial emergency with a suspension of trials in civil and criminal cases, so a parent with a concern over a shared custody arrangement should consult an Atlanta family law attorney to learn about options that may be available.