Guide for Separated Families during COVID-19
Separated parties experience the stressors of separation and in parenting. Additional pressures and stresses such as those associated with the Covid-19 pandemic can be hard to accommodate, and can cause extra anxiety in families, parents and children.
Here are our TOP suggestions to help separated families navigate this difficult time.
Stay Healthy and be considered
Model best practice habits (for kids, family and friends) to minimise the risk of spread of the virus – frequent and thorough hand washing and responsible social distancing. Simple routines become habit forming.
If you have children:
- Let the other parent know that you (and all members of the household) are following these guidelines – we all worry that others are not taking things as seriously as we should and assurances bring peace of mind and good will. As with all co-parenting, consistent messaging across households is ideal.
- Children will have heard much through their schools, networks and media. Children are not necessarily able to accurately process all of this information in a way that allows for peace of mind. Older children whose studies and major social events such a school formals and celebrations have been cancelled may be unsettled and anxious. Younger children can readily become confused and scared by perceived magnitudes of risk.
- Meeting your obligations: If your parenting matters are regulated by court order or agreement, you must still meet your obligstions under those terms unless a reasonable excuse applies. If arrangements become unclear or cannot be met (eg. quarantine, travel restrictions or because schools close) use common sense to find solutions to challenges. If you anticipate a change, give the other parent plenty of notice and an explanation so they also have time to adjust. Any agreed changes to parenting agreements should be documented informally by exchange of SMS messages, emails, in a parenting app or letters between lawyers. In some situations the orders should be formally changed. It is probable that even if the courts are closed, consent orders will be able to be processed by registrars working remotely. Legal advice should be sought about the best way to document any changes.
- Changeovers: If schools are closed and changeover normally occurred after and at school or sporting events, nominate or start planning for another neutral and public location that will be suitable – and where social distancing practices can be maintained. Many changeovers take place at locations which may close, such as schools and take-away outlets. Think about alternative venues now. If the separation was some time ago and tensions have reduced, it may be time to re-think whether changeovers can occur at parents’ homes. If child care facilities and schools close, parents (or other younger family members) may be a better option than grandparents who may be more at risk of serious illness due to their ages. If one parent is working from home, maybe they can increase their time with the children? What if one or both parents are sick and unable to care for the children for an extended period? Discuss back-up plans now. If time arrangements with the other parent or important people cannot occur, find other ways to maintain the connection – including digital communications.
- Be Open: Try to be on the same page with the other parent about the things you will each do in your respective households (and in your wider communities) to limit exposure to the virus and to shield the children. If a child is showing any symptoms, that information should be shared immediately with the other parent, and an agreed response implemented. Know what your own self-isolation plan will be so that you are able to share that with the other parent if necessary. Try to engage openly and honestly with the other parent about your worries and if there has been a risk of exposure to the virus, be honest about that (at which point mandated responses will be required in any event, which will include isolation or quarantine and may include testing).
- Be compassionate: Very few people can apply certainty to their planning in times of stress and may respond to data about risk in ways that may seem disproportionate to you – but understand that we do not have a playbook for how to plan for or respond to this crisis. Being calm in times of high stress is hard – but you are more likely to reduce the conflict if both are making the best effort possible.
- Be solution focussed: At this time, more than ever, the need for parents and other adults concerned with the care of children to find compromise in the interests of children, is absolutely clear. Courts will increasingly have limited availability; dispute resolution services may be hard to access and common sense coupled with respectful engagement may be the surest path. It is an opportunity to find new ways to solve old problems.
- Help out to the extent you can: People may lose jobs or experience a reduction in their income. This may impact what can be paid by way of child support or the contribution to other expenses. Try to be understanding of the situation the other parent is in – financial worry will probably exist in both households. The message and legacy of these days should be, as far as possible, that both parents and households worked together to find a solution that was as good as possible for the children.
- Be patient and positive: This situation is not going to resolve overnight. Changes to the way we work, socialise, communicate and parent will come in the next few weeks and months. Make a conscious effort to embrace the good and joyful moments in each day, stay connected by phone or social media to friends or family who can support you and remember that you are the beacon for your children at this time.
- Overseas travel: The parent should also be aware that if they are not permanent residents or Australian citizens, then they may not be allowed back into Australia at all. As of midnight on 15 March 2020, if they are allowed back into Australia, they will be required to self-isolate for 14 days which means not seeing the children for that time. There may be fines or other penalties for not self-isolating. Court orders already made which permit overseas travel by children may not be practical or enforceable.
- Breaching parenting orders: A party may be held in contravention of a court order if they do not have a reasonable excuse for breaching the order. Predicting what a court will consider to be a reasonable excuse is difficult, but a complaint that one parent does not have the same standards of hygiene as the other parent is unlikely to be a reasonable excuse. Parents should try to work out how they will deal with COVID-19 in advance. Different families will have different views and different solutions. If a parent proposes to breach a parenting order by not handing over a child because of the risk of infection in the other household, specific medical and other evidence about the risk to the child will be required to defend any contravention application.
Child support and spousal maintenance:
There may be grounds to seek an increase or decrease if a parent has no work, is made redundant or has a reduced income. DHHS — Child Support may be able to assist, or legal advice may need to be sought, particularly if there is a binding child support agreement.
Court orders and financial agreements, which set out the terms of a property settlement but have not yet been implemented, may seem unworkable or unfair due to changes in personal circumstances and/or the economy. It may be worthwhile obtaining legal advice as to whether the order or agreement can be reviewed, but the test for impracticability is a high one. It is not enough that it has become unjust or difficult for the order or agreement to be carried out.
These are often expressed in dollar terms. Given the volatility in the share markets, percentage splits might be preferred in the next few months.
Consider putting these on hold. Many businesses will be adversely affected by reduced demand, staff absences and the like. A valuation that takes into account the 2018/19 financial year but not the 2019/2020 financial year may wildly over-state value.
It is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will at some stage cause the Family Law Courts to close for a while and at short notice. Presumably, they will give priority to more urgent matters, not hearings that can wait. Telephone hearings will become more frequent. Where appropriate you should try to settle your cases through negotiation, family dispute resolution, mediation or arbitration and not rely on the already under-resourced courts being able to hear their cases promptly. Alternative dispute resolution is always sensible, but even more so now.
Taking the Next Step
At Lees & Givney, we understand that you might be experiencing feelings of uncertainty or may be feeling overwhelmed. Taking the next step is a big decision and one you won’t take lightly.
Our role is to explore the options with you, guide you as you make decisions, help you understand the legal process, and put legal protection in place. If you would like to know more about Apprehended Violence Orders, domestic violence, or your rights as a parent, contact us or phone us on 02 9816 1122.