The coronavirus pandemic has changed almost everything about life in Missouri over the past few months. While businesses and the government are gradually reopening, people must still be careful. This includes both avoiding exposure from other people and avoiding exposing others, since it appears that people can have the virus and spread it to others while showing no symptoms. Wearing masks, social distancing, and remaining home whenever possible are the best things that most of us can do to help. What happens, though, when the pandemic interferes with a parenting plan or a custody order?
Missouri encourages parents to make every effort to resolve disagreements over visitation, decision-making, and other issues on their own. A public health crisis can make communication difficult. Under Missouri law, parents cannot make changes to a custody or visitation plan on their own. There may be exceptions to this rule based on Missouri court decisions, but the courts have not ruled on any questions relevant to the current pandemic.
In any proceeding for divorce or legal separation that involves minor children, Missouri law requires both parents to file a proposed parenting plan with the court shortly after the beginning of the case. The parents can agree to a plan and file it jointly, or they can each file their own plans.
The proposed parenting plan should be in “the best interest of the children,” and should include the following:
All of these items must be present in the final order signed by the court. If the parties cannot agree to a custody arrangement and parenting plan, the court will come up with one for them.
In a situation like what we are now facing with the coronavirus, the parts of the plan that are related to communication are critically important. Parents will have to communicate with one another in order to deal with unexpected interruptions in the schedule, medical expenses, and other complications.
Missouri law provides parents with two methods for enforcing a custody order. They can file a “verified motion for contempt” with the court “in the event of noncompliance.” If the court finds the other parent to be in contempt of court, they can impose a monetary fine, or even throw them in jail.
A parent can also file a “family access motion” if the other parent has denied them custody or interfered with their visitation rights “without good cause.” This motion must describe how the other parent violated the court’s orders.
The key question with a family access motion is whether the other parent can show “good cause.” Courts in Missouri generally require a finding that a parent acted “willfully, intentionally, and without good cause,” and they have discretion to determine what constitutes “good cause.”
So far, no court in Missouri has held that concerns over the coronavirus or COVID-19 constitute “good cause” for modifying a custody or visitation schedule without the other parent’s agreement. Parents who are concerned about maintaining custody and visitation schedules should consult with a family attorney.
Public health officials recommend that people maintain a “social distance” of at least six feet from people who are not part of their household, in order to lessen the risk of transmission of the virus. A person’s child is generally considered part of their household, even if they reside with the other parent most of the time. Each situation is unique, of course, so each parent must assess their own risks.
Concerns may arise if, for example, a parent suspects that the other parent is not following the recommended precautions. While these concerns may have merit, they are not a justification for withholding custody or visitation without consulting with the other parent or involving the court.
If a person believes they have been exposed to the virus, they are advised to quarantine themselves for a period of up to two weeks, which is believed to be the maximum incubation period for the virus. A person displaying symptoms of COVID-19 is advised to isolate themselves to the greatest extent possible.
This can cause significant disruption to custody and visitation. As with other potential problems arising from the pandemic, Missouri courts have not issued any definitive rulings that might offer guidance on how to handle this kind of situation. The parents would ideally work out an alternative arrangement if one of them needs to go into quarantine or isolation. If not, they should each consult with a family attorney to discuss their options.
Kansas City family lawyer Mark A. Wortman focuses his practice exclusively on divorce, child custody, and other family law matters. Please contact us today at (816) 523-6100 or through our website to schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable legal advocate.