Co-Parenting and Cohabiting During COVID-19

The pandemic has made life more difficult for just about everyone, in ways large and small. And for parents who share custody of their children, or couples in the process of divorce, what’s often a challenging scenario may have become a lot more complicated — virtually overnight.

Family law attorney Vincent Stark says that his practice has heard from many parents who are hesitant to release their children to the custody of their other parent for fear of infection. 

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“We’re just telling parents to take a deep breath and communicate with the other parent the best you can,” Stark said.

Per Illinois’ stay-at-home order, parental visitation agreements remain in effect even during the pandemic, and transporting children between parents is considered essential travel. Stark says he’s telling parents who are not getting the parenting time they’re entitled to to document their experiences so they can seek remedy from court. 

“Keep a very detailed log, and if we need to, we can go into court and get makeup parenting time for that parent,” he said.

Clinical therapist Donna Baptiste, who is a professor at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, agrees that even now, visitation rights should be honored to the best of parents’ ability. 

“There are nuances though,” Baptiste said. “What if a parent gets sick, or has been exposed and doesn’t want the children to get it? There are also situations where elderly people are at home and parents figure, if I bring the kids over, what does that mean? My advice to the couples that I work with would be find solutions prioritizing the best interests of children but also themselves. Collaboration, flexibility, even kindness, those are keys right now since no one’s on their best game in this thing.”

Another relationship issue getting strained by the pandemic is child support. Stark says that when it comes to court-ordered support of any kind, it’s necessary to get the court involved for any changes that arise. 

“If you have someone who’s paying support and they’ve lost their job or have reduced income, we’re telling them you have to go to court, you have to file something in order to get that court order to be reduced. On the other end, the recipient, when we get a call and say, ‘Hey, I’m not getting my check,' the child support, the maintenance has stopped, again, we would have to go to court and enforce that order or see what that person is earning,” Stark said.

Stark also notes that stimulus checks count towards income as far as support is concerned. “If you are under an obligation and it’s going to the state that’s due to a child support or maintenance arrearage, they’re taking that stimulus check and applying it towards your arrearage,” he said.

Baptiste says she’s also heard from clients who were in the midst of divorce proceedings when the stay-at-home order was enacted. She says for those couples, “the reality of ‘forced togetherness’ when couples are emotionally divorced is hard. In working with couples around this dynamic I remind them to grieve, triage and adapt. This involves taking care of themselves, viewing the situation through the lens of crisis which requires creative problem solving and adapting to a temporary reality. 

“If couples are still living in one home together my three preferred values are kindness, flexibility and boundaries. It does not mean that coupling again is in the mix or that divorce is off the table. It’s people choosing to live in a ‘good-enough’ arrangement for now till things get better. And they will, in time.”

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