As all of Colorado is asked to remain at home, practical and legal questions arise for separated and divorced parents. Keeping custody agreements and transporting kids back and forth sounds complicated and risky. Colorado Parent asked family law practitioners Suzanne Griffiths of Griffiths Law P.C. and David Lamb of Sherr Puttmann Akins Lamb P.C. about what co-parenting during this crisis means.
Colorado Parent: What comes into question legally when co-parenting families are told to stay at home except for necessities and emergencies?
David Lamb: The (court) orders are the orders, and parents need to follow them. A lot of the lockdown orders themselves say that court-ordered travel is still permitted.
Suzanne Griffiths: We are suggesting that people speak with their spouse or ex-spouses, because some people are actually cooperative. It’s amazing how clients eventually find a solution. People are going to have to be resourceful.
CP: What if a parent still has to go to work in an occupation at high risk for exposure to COVID-19? Will they still be able to see their child?
DL: Judges are not going to be persuaded by arguments over who would have greater exposure. You could get this virus if you have a parent who works at a 7-Eleven; you could get this virus if you have a parent who works in a more controlled environment. Parenting time orders need to be followed and precautions should be taken.
SG: Parents are really panicked (if an ex works in a high-risk environment), (but) the problem is, it’s really not grounds to refuse parenting time. What probably would be good grounds for a restriction would be the child’s immune system. If there’s a positive COVID test, then, number one, you would go to the medical professionals and they may have strong opinions (about next steps). In that case, there could be grounds to suspend parenting time.
CP: Do the same negotiation and mediation rules apply when talking about what’s best for a child in this unprecedented situation?
SG: Parents should put the child’s interests first. What can you work out? Except for motions to restrict parenting time, and motions regarding domestic violence, the courts are essentially closed. This is a time of self-help. If (parents) don’t (come to an agreement) and one parent behaves really badly, some of the judges have already said there will be consequences after this is over.
DL: We as family law practitioners are trying to keep people from taking advantage of the coronavirus to increase their parenting time in a manipulative way. (For) cases that have been around for a while, we are trying to get cases to resolution because this is going to create a (court) delay. We’re going to encourage people to get their negotiating caps on.
CP: How should parents communicate with their kids about rearranged schedules?
SG: The psychologists I work with recommend that the parents reach an agreement first, and then as a united front, tell the children what they’ve agreed to. Sixteen-year-olds may have some input, but you should not be involving little ones in these discussions or decisions.
CP: What are the lasting effects on co-parenting and family law from this situation?
DL: Already we’ve seen short term continuances of court dates and we’re going to see those on an ongoing basis. Because of the delay, family law practitioners and parties (need to) be reasonable and reach compromises that are in the best interest of the child.
SG: Maintenance and child support is going to be substantially changed. To change maintenance and child support, you’ve got to show a substantial and continuing change (in income). I anticipate there will be a massive wave (of changes). I don’t even know where it’s going to end, quite frankly.
In some cases, this has created some really special moments for families. Some people are saying, “I’ve got to spend time with my children like I’ve never spent in my life.”
These responses were edited for length and clarity.
Legal Services for Parents Experiencing Economic Loss
- Metro Volunteer Lawyers is a pro bono group of lawyers offering free or low-fee legal services for people with qualifying financial circumstances. A majority of the cases they handle have to do with family law. Call Colorado Legal Services at 303-837-1313 or complete an online intake.
- Suzanne Griffiths says most firms, including hers, are working with clients who can’t pay the usual retainer. Other firms, such as Maha Kamal’s Colorado Family Law Project, work on a sliding scale and offer full representation or unbundled services.
- Go to the Colorado Judicial Branch website to modify child support and maintenance in a single form and file it with the court. Get the motion filed immediately in order to receive extra assistance down the line.