The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in many ways. It is disrupting every facet of our lives, but the exact legal and financial implications may be difficult to predict.
One area where people are experiencing particular uncertainty is family law. Specifically, many families are wondering whether the pandemic warrants a disruption to child visitation. Can one parent keep the child from visiting the other for the sake of the child’s health? How long could that disruption last? How do parents choose between following family court orders and following social distancing or quarantine orders?
Unfortunately, the answer is not clear. If one parent files a contempt petition (i.e. accusing the other parent of intentionally disobeying a court order), the local judge will use their discretion. The pandemic has developed rapidly, and there is currently no legal framework guiding family courts through crises such as COVID-19. Furthermore, many courts have closed and are not hearing anything but emergency cases.
That said, parents choosing between disobeying a court order and risking their family’s health will want guidance. While we cannot necessarily advise a family to do one or the other, our team at the Law Office of Steven J. Hart can offer insight into what circumstances may convince a judge to hold a parent in contempt.
What Factors Could Lead to a Verdict of Contempt?
Currently, the mere existence of COVID-19 is likely not a valid reason for disrupting a child visitation arrangement. Although many government officials have urged parents to keep children home as much as possible, family courts are still legally obligated to enforce visitation orders.
Here are a few examples of when a judge is more likely to hold a parent in contempt. In these scenarios, Parent A is the parent who keeps the child at home, and Parent B is the parent who accuses Parent A of disregarding Parent B’s custody or visitation rights.
- The child has already contracted and fully recovered from the virus
- The family members that posed a risk to the child have contracted and fully recovered from the virus
- No one in Parent B’s household has COVID-19 or is at risk of contracting it
- Parent A claims Parent B would put the child at risk, but Parent A is not doing anything differently than Parent B (e.g. social distancing)
- Parent A is unnecessarily risking exposure (e.g. play dates, frequent and nonessential outings, etc.)
- Parent A has a high risk of contracting COVID-19 (e.g. they are a healthcare professional, grocery store employee, etc.)
- Parent A is not making any effort to maintain the child’s frequent contact with Parent B (e.g. daily Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime sessions)
- A judge has previously held Parent A in contempt for visitation denial
Generally, a judge will not consider visitation denial valid if they believe Parent A was not acting in the child’s best interests. Now more than ever, normalcy and routine are vital for a child’s mental health, and a judge may hold Parent A in contempt because the child needs close and stable relationships with both parents to handle the psychological stress of COVID-19.
What Factors Could Protect a Parent from Being Held in Contempt?
If the judge believes Parent A truly acted in the child’s best interests by denying visitation with Parent B, Parent A may be safe from a verdict of contempt.
Here are a few factors that MAY help Parent A avoid being held in contempt:
- Parent A documents the visitation denial and their reasoning in a detailed and timely manner
- Parent A offers reasonable makeup visitation in writing
- Parent A is practicing proper social distancing/quarantine measures for themselves and the child
- Parent B agrees to visitation denial in writing
- Parent B or someone else in their household has COVID-19 or has been exposed to it
- The visitation denial only occurs for the duration of the risk (unless the risk is ongoing, such as if Parent B is continuously exposed to the virus)
Because many courts are currently closed, parents could resolve their disagreement before a judge hears the contempt petition. If you plan to disobey a court order because of COVID-19, thorough documentation of your decision and the other parent’s response will be vital for your case.
Additional Guidance from the Law Office of Steven J. Hart
These scenarios are our speculations. We cannot predict how local courts will handle contempt petitions amidst COVID-19, but we can assess your situation and provide case-specific insight or suggestions. If you have concerns about how the pandemic could affect your family law matter, we are fully prepared to answer your questions and recommend the most appropriate way forward.